For the past few days, I've been waiting for a review copy of Bob Woodward's book The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate's Deep Throat to arrive from Simon and Schuster. So there has been some time to contemplate the way that (no longer quite so) mysterious figure has been "inscribed" ina "double register" of "the historical imaginary," as the cult-stud lingo has it. (Sure hope there's a chance to use "imbricated discourse" soon. Man, that would be sweet.)
Putting it in slightly more commonplace terms: Two versions of Deep Throat have taken shape in the past 30 years or so. They correspond to two different ways of experiencing the odd, complex relationship between media and historical memory.
On the one hand, there was Deep Throat as a participant in a real historical event -- making the question of his motivation an important factor in making sense of what happened. It was even, perhaps, the key to understanding the "deep politics" of Watergate, the hidden forces behind Richard Nixon's fall. The element of lasting secrecy made it all kind of blurry, but in a fascinating way, like some especially suggestive Rorschach blot.
On the other hand, there was Deep Throat as pure icon -- a reference you could recognize (sort of) even without possessing any clear sense of his role in Watergate. It started out with Hal Holbrook's performance in All the President's Men -- which, in turn, was echoed by "the cigarette-smoking man" on "The X Files," as well as the mysterious source of insider information about the Springfield Republican Party on "The Simpsons." And so Deep Throat (whose pseudonym was itself originally amovie title) becomes a mediatic signifier unmoored to any historical signified. (An allusion to an allusion to a secret thus forgotten.)
Different as they might be, these two versions of Deep Throat aren't mutually exclusive. The discourses can indeed become imbricated ( yes!), as in the memorable film Dick, which reveals Deep Throat as a pair of idealistic schoolgirls who guide the cluelessly bumbling Woodward and Bernstein through the mysteries of the Nixon White House.
There is something wonderful about this silly premise: In rewriting the history of Watergate, Dick follows the actual events, yet somehow neutralizes their dire logic by just the slightest shift ofemphasis. The deepest secret of an agonizing national crisis turns out to be something absurd.
That perspective is either comically subversive or deeply cynical. Either way, it's been less anticlimactic, somehow, than the revelation of Deep Throat's real identity as the former FBI official Mark Felt. So much for the more elaborate theories about Watergate - that it was, for example, a "silent coup" by a hard-right anticommunist faction of the U.S. military, upset by the administration's dealings with the Soviets and the Chinese. And Deep Throat's role as emblem of noir-ish intrigue may never recover from the impact of the recent, brightly lit video footage of Mark Felt -- half-dazed, half mugging for the camera.
And there have been other disappointments. This week, I had an interesting exchange by e-mail with Bill Gaines, a professor of journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and two-time winner of the Pulitzer, not counting his two other times as finalist. His part in the DeepThroat saga came late in the story, and it's caused him a certain amount of grief.
But it was also -- this seems to me obvious -- quite honorable. If anything, it is even more worthy of note now that Bob Woodward is telling his side of the story. (While Carl Bernstein also has a chapter in the book, it was Woodward who had the connection with Felt.)
In 1999, Gaines and his students began an investigation designed to determine the identity of Deep Throat. The project lasted four years. It involved sifting through thousands of pages of primary documents and reading acres of Watergate memoir and analysis -- as well as comparing the original articles by Woodward and Bernstein from The Washington Post to the narrative they provided in their book All the President's Men. Gaines also tracked down earlier versions of the manuscript for that volume -- drafted before Woodward decided to reveal that he had a privileged source of inside information.
Gaines and his students compiled a database they used to determine which of the likely candidates would have actually been in a position to leak the information that Deep Throat provided. In April 2003, they held a press conference at the Watergate complex in Washington, DC, where they revealed ... the wrong guy.
After a period of thinking that Deep Throat must have been Patrick Buchanan (once a speechwriter for Nixon), the researchers concluded that it had actually been Fred Fielding, an attorney who had worked as assistant to John Dean. The original report from the project making the case for Fielding is still available online -- now updated with a text from Gaines saying, "We were wrong."
The aftermath of Felt's revelation, in late May, was predictably unpleasant for Gaines. There were hundreds of e-mail messages, and his phone rang off the hook. "Some snickered as if we had run the wrong way with the football," he told me.
But he added, "My students were extremely loyal and have told anyone who will listen that they were thrilled with being a part of this project even though it failed." Some of those who worked on the project came around to help Gaines with the deluge of correspondence, and otherwise lend moral support.
As mistaken deductions go, the argument offered by Gaines and his students two years ago is pretty rigorous. Its one major error seems to have come at an early stage, with the assumption that Woodward's account of Deep Throat was as exact as discretion would allow. That was in keeping with Woodward's own statements, over the years. "It's okay to leave things out to protect the identity of a source," he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2002, "but to add something affirmative that isn't true is to publish something you know to be an inaccuracy. I don't believe that's ethical for a reporter."
The problem is that the original account of Deep Throat doesn't line up quite perfectly with what is known about Mark Felt. Some of the discrepancies are small, but puzzling even so. Deep Throat is a chain smoker, while Felt claimed to have given up the demon weed in 1943. "The idea that Felt only smokes in the garage [during his secretive rendezvous with Woodward] is a little hard to swallow," says Gaines. "I cannot picture him buying a pack and throwing the rest away for the drama it will provide." By contrast, Fielding was a smoker.
More substantive, perhaps, are questions about what Deep Throat knew and how he knew it. Gaines and his students noted that statements attributed to Deep Throat in All the President's Men were credited to a White House source in the original newspaper articles by Woodward and Bernstein. (Felt was second in command at the FBI, not someone working directly for the White House, as was Fielding.)
Deep Throat provided authoritative information gleaned from listening to Nixon's secret recordings during a meeting in November 1973. That was several months after Felt left the FBI. And to complicate things still more, no one from the FBI had been at the meeting where the recordings were played.
According to Gaines, that means Felt could only have learned about the contents of the recordings at third hand, at best. Felt was, as Gaines put it in an e-mail note, ""so far removed that his comments to Woodward would have to be considered hearsay, and not the kind of thing a reporter could write for fact by quoting an anonymous source."
When I ask Gaines if there is anything he hopes to learn from Bob Woodward's new book, he mentions hoping for some insight into one of the more memorable descriptions of the secret source -- the one about how Deep Throat "knew too much literature too well." In any case, Gaines make a strong argument that Woodward himself took a certain amount of literary license in transforming Felt into Deep Throat.
"We know from our copy of an earlier manuscript that Woodward changed some direct quotes attributed to Throat," he notes. "They were not major changes, but enough to tell us that he was loose with the quotes. There is information attributed to Throat that Felt would not have had, or that doesnot agree with what we found in FBI files."
As the saying has it, journalists write a first draft of history. One of the ethical questions involves trying to figure out just how much discretion they get in polishing the manuscript. Gaines seems careful not to say anything too forceful on this score -- though he does make clear that he isn't charging Woodward with creating a composite character.
That has long been one of the suspicions about Deep Throat. Even the new revelation hasn't quite dispelled it. Just after Felt went public with his announcement, Jon Wiener, a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine, reviewed some of the grounds for thinking that "several people who provided key information ... were turned into a composite figure for dramatic purposes" by Woodward and Bernstein. (You can find more of Wiener's comments here, at the very end of the article.)
For his part, Gaines says that the Deep Throat investigation isn't quite closed -- although he wishes it were. "I have always wanted to move on to something more important for the class project," he told me, "but the students and the media have caused us to keep going back to the Throat story."
Maybe now they should look into the mystery surrounding Deep Throat's most famous line: his memorable injunction to Woodward, "Follow the money."
It appears in the movie version of All the President's Men, though it can't be found in the book. When asked about it in an interview some years ago, Woodward guessed that it was an embellishment by William Goldman, the screenwriter. But Goldman has insisted that he got the line from Woodward.
Now it's part of the national mythology. But it may never have actually happened. Sometimes I wish the discourses would stop imbricating long enough to get this kind of thing sorted out.
Once upon a time -- back in the days of dial-up and of press conferences devoted to the presidential libido -- there was a phenomenon known as the "web log." It was like a blog, only different. A web log consisted almost entirely of links to pages that the 'logger had recently visited online. There might also be a brief description of the site, or an evaluative remark. But the commentary was quick, not discursive; and it was secondary to the link. The product resembled an itinerary or a scrapbook more than it did a diary or an op-ed page.
So when Political Theory Daily Review started in January 2003, it already looked a little bit old-fashioned, blogospherically speaking. It was a log, plain and simple. There were three new links each day. The first was to a newspaper or magazine article about some current event. The second tended to go to a debate or polemical article. And the third (always the wild card, the one it was most interesting to see) would be academic: a link to a scholarly article in an online journal, or a conference site, or perhaps the uploaded draft of a paper in PDF.
In the intervening years, the site has grown wildly -- at least in size, if not in reputation. (Chances are that more bloggers read Political Theory than ever link to it.) The same three departments exist, but often with a dozen or more links in each. By now, clearly, the Review must be a team effort. The sheer volume of material logged each day suggests it is run by a collective of gnomes who tirelessly scour the Web for eruditia.
But in fact, it is all the work of one person, Alfredo Perez, who keeps a pretty low profile, even on his own site. I got in touch with Perez to find out who he is, and how he puts the Review together. (I also wondered if he ever got much sleep, but forgot to ask that part.) Here, in any case, is the gist of our e-mail discussion, presented with his permission.
Alfredo Perez is 34 years old and originally from Puerto Rico. After going to college in the United States, he went back to the island to work in the government for a few years, then headed to New York in 1996. He ended up at the New School, where he is now pursuing a dissertation on political theory. He lists his research interests as "normative political theory, cosmopolitanism and sovereignty, theories of human nature, and political economy."
Now, alembicating all of that down to a manageable dissertation is not so easy. And it sounds like Political Theory Daily Review has had a complicating effect on the whole process. "Writing a dissertation is an exercise in becoming an expert in one small piece of scholarly real estate," he says. "It really hasn't helped in that way."
But the Review has also had its educational benefits for Perez. It has encouraged him to keep up with fields that are now in the news: "the debate regarding constitutional interpretation, the arguments about American foreign policy and its impact around the world, and the space for religion in the public sphere...." He says he "probably would have been much less informed about [these areas] without having to keep up the site."
Over the year or so that I've come to rely on the Review as gateway to new material online, the most striking thing has been Perez's mix of sources. On the one hand, he covers extremely topical material -- "ripped from today's headlines," with quite a few of those headlines being from the English-language editions of foreign newspapers and magazines.
On the other hand, some of the sites to which Perez links are exotic, esoteric, or just downright weird. I'm glad to hear about the debate over liberalism in a Slovakian journal called Kritika & Kontext -- but could probably have lived without seeing the United States Christian Flag. It is a relief, though, to learn that the latter Web site's sponsors "are not trying to overthrow the government or force anyone to be a Christian." Thank heaven for small favors.
How does Perez keep up with all this stuff? What are his criteria for linking? Do readers send him tips?
To take the last question first: No, for the most part, they don't. Evidently he just has one wicked set of bookmarks.
"I try to link to things that are interesting to me or to anyone trying to keep up with current events," says Perez, "not just political theory.... I don't link to technical papers on, say, economics, but if I see an interview with Gary Becker or an article on Amartya Sen, I don't think twice about linking to that. Sometimes I link to articles on Theory, essays by literary critics, or events in the world of literature." He also has an interest in the natural sciences -- biology, in particular -- so he links to things he's following in Scientific American and other publications.
Perez doesn't link to blogs. That way, madness lies. "It would be too much work to consider linking to the blogosphere," he says."
He places a special emphasis on pointing readers to "articles that are sure -- or have the potential -- to become part of what's debated in the public sphere." That includes things like op-eds in The New York Times, articles on public policy in The American Prospect, and essays from the socialist journal Dissent -- "material that I think should be a part of the 'required reading' for anyone who wants to stay on top of the news and public debates."
His default list of required readings shows a certain tilt to the left. But he also links to material far removed from his own politics -- publications such as Reason,First Things,Policy Review, and "The Occidental Quarterly." Actually, it was Perez's site that first introduced me to the latter periodical, which describes itself as a "journal of Western thought and opinion." Its editors are keen on eugenics, stricter immigration laws, and the European cultural tradition (in particular the German contribution thereto).
"I think it obvious," says Perez, "that anyone interested in public debates about more philosophical matters has to be familiar with those on 'the other side.' I think it's just plain smart to do so. Reading counterarguments to your position can often be more helpful than readings that just confirm your own point of view." He says he makes no claim to be "fair and balanced," but also "doesn't want to alienate visitors who are on the right. I want them coming back!"
Any editorializing at Political Theory Daily Review tends to be implicit, rather than full-throated. It may be that lack of a sharp ideological edge, as much as the sheer number of links in the course of a week, that creates the impression that the site is the work of a committee.
Perez admits that he's "not very comfortable about publishing opinions willy-nilly like many people are when writing on their blogs. In fact, I am part of a group blog, Political Arguments, but I hardly ever post there." It's not that he lacks a viewpoint, or is shy about arguing politics and philosophy with his friends and family.
"I'm pretty sure I could defend those views well enough," he told me. "I guess it's my way of being a bit careful about the whole process. People in academia cannot be timid about their own views, of course, especially political theorists with regards to politics. But it's different when discussing day-to-day events as soon as they happen."
The line between public intellectual and pompous gasbag is, to be sure, a slender one; and it runs down a slippery slope. Perez's caution is understandable. "I don't think I have to mention any specific names in academia as examples," he says, "in order to make my point here."
This may be a minority opinion, but I’ll stick by it: Nothing clarified the course of American politics quite like the 1996 election -- and in particular the presidential debate. First there was the stirring rhetoric of Kang: "The politics of failure have failed! We have to make them work again." Then came the statesmanlike reply of Kodos: "I am looking forward to an orderly election tomorrow that will eliminate the need for a violent bloodbath."
Kang’s catchy slogan about the politics of failure came to mind while reading Democracy at Risk: How Political Choices Undermine Citizen Participation, and What We Can Do About It, a new book published by the Brookings Institution Press. The title page lists 19 authors, all of them distinguished political scientists. (For a list, look here. ) They are scrupulously non-partisan -- almost transcendentally so. "Favoring a party has never been our aim," they write, "nor have we self-consciously striven for partisan balance; instead, we recommend what we think is best for the nation." They write with such sober, intelligent concern about the state of the republic that one cannot help feeling a little guilty for comparing them to extraterrestrials hell-bent on earth’s domination. I’m sure that most of them have no such intent.
But it sometimes happens that sober, intelligent books that straddle the divide between scholarship and public-spirited worrying can be a source of frustration. Democracy at Risk is a case in point. Not because it is hysterical or outlandish. Far from it. Rather, it's so level-headed as to be somewhat anodyne. Which is strange, because parts of the report are fairly troubling to think about. Decorum is a fine thing, but not always the most suitable. Sometimes yelling is appropriate.
The team putting Democracy at Risk together started out, three years ago, as a task force of the American Political Science Association. It was charged with "bring[ing] the insights of political science to bear on the problem of civic engagement."
The latter phrase refers the American public's steady, long-term trend towards increasing apathy, ignorance, and passivity in regard to all things political.
Increased voter turnout in 2004 was, seemingly, an exception to the trend. It was widely regarded as the most important presidential race in recent memory. Between 59 and 60 percent of those registered to vote actually did. Democracy at Risk puts that in context by noting that the level of participation "was about the same as in 1956, when an incumbent president handily and predictably defeated the same challenger he had faced four years earlier." And in spite of a massive get-out-the-vote effort "in which interest groups alone spent more than $350 million," the turnout "was only 5 percentage points higher than in 2000."
Calling this a case of "the problem of civic engagement" is more neutral-sounding than references to apathy, ignorance, and passivity. It has the advantage of avoiding the censorious overtone of those words. The authors cite Plato and Aristotle as the founding fathers of their discipline. But perhaps it would have been more fitting to take their inspiration from Confucius (the forerunner of an astute, brass-tacks kind of poli sci). For as Confucius put it, you can begin to rectify the order of things only by giving them their proper names.
Chart after chart in Democracy at Risk shows the downward curve of almost any index of participation you’d care to name. "Between 1974 and 1994," the authors point out, "engagement in twelve key political activities, such as writing letters to the editor, participating in rallies and demonstrations, and volunteering in campaigns, fell significantly.... From the mid-1970s to the present, the number of adolescents who say they can see themselves working on a political campaign has dropped by about half." Some measures indicated that "college graduates nowadays know as much about politics as the average high school senior did fifty years ago."
The situation is one of mutually reinforcing disincentives to anything resembling meaningful citizenship -- with a corrosive effect on the legitimacy of established institutions. "When rates of turnout are low," say the political scientists, "those who do turn up tend to be disproportionately ideological zealots." That heightens the tendency towards chest-thumping within the political class: "As recently as the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were many members of the House and Senate who were 'cross-pressured' and prepared to work across party lines to solve national problems. There are now far fewer such legislators."
Which, in turn, makes for gridlock and grandstanding. Which then inspires revulsion (and reduced voter turnout) across large sectors of the "I’m-a-pragmatic-moderate" electorate. And so, come election time, mostly the energized base shows up at the polls. Repeat ad nauseam, ad infinitum.
That is a quintessentially centrist diagnosis, of course. "Our politics has become far more rancorous," the report states, "and this not only makes it harder to legislate but also turns off moderate voters, while arousing the passions of those at ideological extremes (precisely the opposite of what our political institutions should do as a general matter)."
Well, I have my doubts about that "should." Justice is not usually on the side of genial indifference -- which, after all, is what the paralyzed response to "ideological extremes" amounts to, often enough. The Abolitionists and Suffragettes were on the fringe. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was, and is, in sundry regards, more than a bit of a wingnut. Better the truths of their ideological extremism than the status quo ante consensus ranged against them.
Even so, there is something worrying about the self-disenfranchisement of the professedly moderate citizens: Namely, the danger of a crisis of legitimacy, eroding whatever minimal level of trust in the institutions of governance is required to avoid (as Kodos puts it) a violent bloodbath.
Not that the authors put it quite like that. But come on -- let’s not pretend it isn't something to consider. Remember the angry crowds in Florida, five years ago. Think of the situation in France right now, with its wireless rioters. It is an article of faith among some people on the left that non-voting by the non-elite is a sign of their superior insight into the nature of the system. (I speak as someone who used to finger that particular set of rosary beads, from time to time.) But chances are an American flash-mob uprising would be somewhat less inspiring than the storming of the Bastille.
So what do the authors of Democracy at Risk propose? All sorts of things -- most of them modest reforms, aimed at reducing various barriers to civic participation that have developed over the years.
Some are simple enough that they might just happen. For example, they suggest mailing polling place information to registered voters shortly before Election Day. Others feel only slightly more realistic than proposing to repeal the law of gravity: "Vigilant enforcement of fair housing laws already on the books would help to ensure that all Americans have the same opportunity to live in desirable neighborhoods. Increasing racial and social integration would, in turn, inject diversity and pluralism into experiences of local engagement."
There should be "a greater emphasis in schools on civic education that emphasizes civic duty and empowerment" so that young citizens-in-training will "learn not only how to think about political forces, causes, and effects but also about what they can do and the conditions under which they can make a difference."
It is difficult to argue with this suggestion. For that matter, it is difficult even to say, in any concrete sense, what it actually means. But unless either Jon Stewart or Playstation is involved, it’s probably a waste of everyone's time.
The authors’ willingness to brainstorm is commendable, though the list of proposals can leave you with more worry and bafflement. It's not just the proposals are sometimes a bit vague, or even slightly comic. (Will it really do much good to "encourage recognition of a young person’s 'first vote' as a significant rite of passage"?)
The limits on civic participation are, in part, a matter of the de facto disenfranchisement of people with limited economic and educational opportunities. Addressing that means taking political action. Which is, in turn, a matter of increased civic participation on the part of people who aren’t being served by the present arrangement. See the problem? No doubt some of the authors did, too, without quite solving it. Then again, they’re political scientists, not political magicians.
Rick Perlstein, a friend from the days of Lingua Franca, is now working on a book about Richard Nixon. Last year, he published a series of in-depth articles about the Republican Party and the American conservative movement. (Those are not quite the same thing, though that distinction only becomes salient from time to time.) In short, Perlstein has had occasion to think about honesty and dissimulation -- and about the broad, swampy territory in between, where politicians finesse the difference. As do artists and used-car salesmen....
It’s the job of historians to map that territory. But philosophers wander there, too. “What is truth?” as Nietzsche once asked. “A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms. Truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions.” Kind of a Cheneyo-Rumsfeldian ring to that thought. It comes from an essay called “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” which does, too, come to think of it.
So anyway, about a week ago, Rick pointed out a recent discussion of how the Bush Administration is dealing with critics who accuse it of fudging the intelligence that suggested Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The link went to a comment by Joshua Micah Marshall, who is a liberal Democrat of the more temperate sort, not prone to hyperventilation.
“Garden variety lying is knowing it’s Y and saying it’s X,” he wrote, giving Lyndon Johnson on the Gulf of Tonkin as an example. The present executive branch, he continued, shows “a much deeper indifference to factual information in itself.”
Rick posed an interesting question: “Isn't Josh Marshall here describing as the Administration's methodology exactly what that Princeton philosophy prof defines as ‘bullshit’?” That prof being, of course, Harry Frankfurt, whose short and best-selling treatise On Bullshit will probably cover everyone’s Christmas bonus at Princeton University Press this year.
In February, The New York Times beat us by a day or so with its article on the book, which daintily avoided giving its title. But "Intellectual Affairs" first took a close look, not just at Frankfurt’s text -- noting that it remained essentially unchanged since its original publication as a scholarly paper in the 1980s -- but at the philosophical critique of it presented in G.A. Cohen’s essay “Deeper into Bullshit.”
Since then, the call for papers for another volume of meditations on the theme of bull has appeared. Truly, we are living in a golden age.
The gist of Frankfurt’s argument, as you may recall, is that pitching BS is a very different form of activity from merely telling a lie. And Marshall’s comments do somewhat echo the philosopher’s point. Frankfurt would agree that “garden variety lying” is saying one thing when you know another to be true. The liar operates within a domain that acknowledges the difference between accuracy and untruth. The bullshitter, in Frankfurt’s analysis, does not. In a sense, then, the other feature of Marshall’s statement would seem to fit. Bullshit involves something like “indifference to factual information in itself.”
So does it follow, then, that in characterizing the Bush team’s state of mind three years ago, during the run-up to the war, we must choose between the options of incompetence, dishonesty, and bullshit? Please understand that I frame it in such terms, not from any political motive, but purely in the interest of conceptual rigor.
That said.... It seems to me that this range of terms is inadequate. One may agree that Bush et al. are profoundly indifferent to verifiable truth without concluding that the Frankfurt category necessarily applies.
Per G. A. Cohen’s analysis in “Deeper into Bullshit,” we must stress that Frankfurt’s model rests on a particular understanding of the consciousness of the liar. The mind of the bullshitter is defined by contrast to this state. For the liar, (1) the contrast between truth and untruth is clearly discerned, and (2) that difference would be grasped by the person to whom the liar speaks. But the liar’s intentionality also includes (3) some specific and lucidly grasped advantage over the listener made possible by the act of lying.
By contrast, the bullshitter is vague on (1) and radically unconcerned with (2). There is more work to be done on the elements of relationship and efficacy indicated by (3). We lack a carefully argued account of bullshit’s effect on the bullshitee.
There is, however, another possible state of consciousness not adequately described by Frankfurt’s paper. What might be called “the true believer” is someone possessing an intense concern with truth.
But it is a Higher Truth, which the listener may not (indeed, probably cannot) grasp. The true believer is speaking a truth that somehow exceeds the understanding of the person hearing it.
During the Moscow Trials of the late 1930s, Stalin’s attorney lodged numerous charges against the accused that were, by normal standards, absurd. In many cases, the “evidence” could be shown to be false. But so much worse for the facts, at least from the vantage point of the true believer. If you’ve ever known someone who got involved in EST or a multi-level marketing business, the same general principle applies. In each case, it is not quite accurate to say that the true believers are lying. Nor are they bullshitting, in the strictest sense, for they maintain a certain fidelity to the Higher Truth.
Similarly, it did not matter three years ago whether or not any evidence existed to link Saddam and Osama. To anyone possessing the Higher Truth, it was obvious that Iraq must be a training ground for Al Qaeda. And guess what? It is now. So why argue about it?
On a less world-historical scale, I see something interesting and apropos in Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors. In the latest issue, David Horowitz makes clear that he is not a liar just because he told a national television audience something that he knew was not true.
(This item was brought to my attention by a friend who teaches in a state undergoing one of Horowitz’s ideological rectification campaigns. My guess is that he’d rather not be thanked by name.)
Here’s the story so far: In February, while the Ward Churchill debate was heating up, Horowitz appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s program. It came up that Horowitz, like Churchill, had been invited to lecture at Hamilton College at some point. But he was not, he said, “a speaker paid by and invited by the faculty.”
As we all know, university faculties are hotbeds of left-wing extremism. (Especially the business schools and engineering departments. And reports of how hotel-management students are forced to read speeches by Pol Pot are positively blood-curdling.) Anyway, whenever Horowitz appears on campus, it’s because some plucky youngsters invite him. He was at Hamilton because he had been asked by “the conservative kids.”
That came as a surprise to Maurice Isserman, a left-of-center historian who teaches at Hamilton College. When I saw him at a conference a few years ago, he seemed to have a little gray in his hair, and his last book, The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington, was a biography of the founder of the Democratic Socialists of America. No doubt he’s been called all sorts of things over the years, but “conservative kid” is not one of them. And when Horowitz spoke at Hamilton a few years ago, it was as a guest lecturer in Isserman’s class on the 1960s.
As Isserman put it in the September/October issue of Academe: “Contrary to the impression he gave on "The O’Reilly Factor," Horowitz was, in fact, an official guest of Hamilton College in fall 2002, invited by a faculty member, introduced at his talk by the dean of the faculty, and generously compensated for his time.”
I will leave to you the pleasure and edification of watching Horowitz explain himself in the latest issue of Academe. But in short, he could not tell the truth because that would have been a lie, so he had to say something untrue in order to speak a Higher Truth.
My apologies for the pretzel-like twistiness of that paraphrase. It is all so much clearer in the original Newspeak: Thoughtcrime is doubleplus ungood.
Two images of William Jennings Bryan have settled into the public memory, neither of them flattering. One is the fundamentalist mountebank familiar to viewers of Inherit the Wind, with its fictionalized rendering of the Scopes trial. In it, the character based on Bryan proclaims himself “more interested in the Rock of Ages than the age of rocks.” He is, in short, a crowd-pleasing creationist numbskull, and nothing more.
The other portrait of Bryan is less cinematic, but darker. The classic version of it appears in Richard Hofstadter’s classic The American Political Tradition, first published in 1948 and still selling around 10,000 copies each year, according to a forthcoming biography of the historian. Hofstadter sketches the career of Bryan as a populist leader during the economic depression of the 1890s, when he emerged as the Midwest’s fierce and eloquent scourge of the Eastern bankers and industrial monopolies.
Yet this left-leaning Bryan had, in Hofstadter’s account, no meaningful program for change. He was merely a vessel of rage. Incapable of statesmanship, only of high-flown oratory, he was a relic of the agrarian past –- and the prototype of the fascistic demagogues who were discovering their own voices, just as Bryan’s career was reaching its end.
Historians have been challenging these interpretations for decades -– beginning in earnest more than 40 years ago, with the scholarship of Lawrence W. Levine, who is now a professor of history and cultural studies at George Mason University. It was Levine who pointed out that when Bryan denounced evolution, he tended to be thinking more of Nietzsche than of Darwin. And the Nietzsche he feared was not today’s poststructuralist playboy, but the herald of a new age of militaristic brutality.
Still, old caricatures die hard. It may be difficult for the contemporary reader to pick up Michael Kazin’s new book, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (Knopf) without imagining that its title contains a snarl and a sneer. Isn’t the rhetoric of evangelical Christianity and anti-elitist sentiment always just a disguise for base motives and cruel intentions? To call someone godly is now, almost by default, to accuse them of hypocrisy.
But Kazin, who is a professor of history at Georgetown University, has a very different story to tell. Revisionist scholarship on Bryan -- the effort to dig beneath the stereotypes and excavate his deeper complexities -- has finally yielded a book that might persuade the general reader to rethink the political role played by “the Great Commoner.”
In an earlier study, The Populist Persuasion: An American History (Basic Books, 1995), Kazin described the emergence in the 19th century of an ideology he called “producerism” – a moral understanding of politics as the struggle between those who built the nation’s infrastructure and those who exploited it. (The farmer or the honest businessman was as much a producer as the industrial worker. Likewise, land speculators and liquor dealers were part of the exploitive class, as were bankers and monopolistic scoundrels.)
The producerist ethos remains a strong undercurrent of American politics today. Bryan was its most eloquent spokesman. He wedded it to a powerful (and by Kazin’s account utterly sincere) belief that politics was a matter of following the commandment to love thy neighbor. As a man of his era, Bryan could be obtuse about how to apply that principle: His attitude toward black Americans was paternalistic, on a good day, and he was indifferent, though not hostile, concerning the specific problems facing immigrants. But Kazin points out that there is no sign of nativist malice in Bryan’s public or private communications. Some of his followers indulged in conspiratorial mutterings against the Catholics or the Jews, but Bryan himself did not. At the same time -- canny politician that he was -- he never challenged the growing power of the Klan during the 1920s.
It’s an absorbing book, especially for its picture of Bryan’s following. (He received an incredible amount of mail from them, only about two percent of which, Kazin notes, has survived.) I contacted Kazin to ask a few questions by e-mail.
Q: By today's standards, Bryan seems like a bundle of contradictions. He was both a fundamentalist Christian and the spokesman for the left wing of the Democratic Party. He embodied a very 19th century notion of "character," but was also exceptionally shrewd about marketing his own personality. For many Americans, he was a beloved elder statesman -- despite losing his two presidential bids and otherwise spending very little time in elected office. How much of that contradictoriness is in Bryan himself, and how much in the eye of the beholder today?
A: Great question! The easiest part to answer is the first: for Bryan and many other reform-minded white Christians, there was no contradiction between their politics and their religion. The “revolution” being made by the Carnegies and Vanderbilts and Rockefellers was destroying the pious republic they knew, or wished to remember (slavery, of course, they forgot about). What Bryan called “applied Christianity” was the natural antidote to the poison of rampant capitalism. The rhetoric of Bellamy, the People’s Party, and the Knights of Labor was full of such notions -– as were the sermons and writings of many Social Gospelers, such as Washington Gladden and Charles Stelzle.
On the character-personality question – I think Warren Susman and many historians he influenced over-dichotomize these two concepts. No serious Christian could favor the latter over the former. Yet, the exigencies of the cultural marketplace and of celebrity culture in particular produced a fascination with the personal lives of the famous. So Bryan, who was as ego-obsessed as any politician, went with the flow, knowing his personality was boosting his political influence. Being a journalist himself, he understood the rules of the emerging game. Do you know Charles Ponce De Leon’s book about celebrity journalism in this period?
Q. Oddly enough, I do, actually. But let's talk about the people to whom Bryan appealed. From digging in the archives, you document that Bryan had a following a loyal following among professionals, and even successful businessmen, who saw themselves as part of the producing class threatened by the plutocratic elite. Was that surprising to discover? Normally you think of populism in that era as the politics of horny-handed toil.
A: As I argued in The Populist Persuasion, when “producerism” became a popular ideal in democratic politics, Americans from many classes were quite happy to embrace it. It thus became an essential contested concept. But among a broad cross-section of people, the critique of finance capital was always stronger in the South and West, where Bryan had his most consistent support, than in places like Philly and NYC.
As for the letters -— I enjoyed that part of the research the most, although it was frustrating as hell to find almost no letters that were written during the campaign of 1908 and only a small number from then until the 1920s. If only WJB or his wife had revealed, somewhere, the criteria they used when dumping all that correspondence! That, at least,would have been a consolation. Of course, if they had kept nearly all of it, I’d still be there in the Manuscript Room at the Library of Congress, tapping away.
Q: I get the impression that Bryan might well have become president if women had been able to vote in 1896 or 1900. How much of his appeal came from expressing the moral and cultural ideals associated with women's "civilizing" role? And how much of it was sex appeal of his rugged personality and magnetic stage presence?
A: Ah, the counterfactuals! Bryan’s image as a “godly hero” certainly did appeal to many women, as did his eloquence and good looks (the latter, at least while he was in his 30s and early 40s). His support for prohibition and woman suffrage would have appealed to many women as well.
In 1896 and 1900, he carried most of the states where women then had the vote (in the Mountain West). Although that may have been because of his free silver and anti-big money stands, which is probably why most men in those states voted for him. On the other hand, his radical image could have limited his appeal to women elsewhere in the country. Women voters, before the 1960s, tended to vote for safe, conservative candidates.
Q: Another counterfactual.... What if Bryan had won? What sort of president would he have been? The man was great at making speeches; none better. But could he really have cut it as Chief Executive?
A: As president, he probably would have been a divisive figure, perhaps an American Hugo Chavez -— but without the benefit of oil revenues! If he tried to carry out the 1896 platform, there may have been a capital strike against him, which would have brought on another depression. If he hadn’t, the Populists and many left Democrats would have deserted him. The sad fact is that he hadn’t built a strong enough constituency to govern, much less to win the election in the first place.
Q: Finally, a question about the subjective dimension of working on this biography. Any moments of profound disillusionment? Rapt admiration? Sudden epiphany?
A: I wish I had time to pursue this important question at length -- perhaps I’ll write an essay about it someday. But briefly: I started reading all those fan letters and experienced an epiphany. Millions of ordinary people adored this guy and thought he was a prophet! And he was certainly fighting the good fight -– against Mark Hanna and his friends who were initiating the U.S. empire.
I also was impressed by his ability as a speech-writer as well as a performer. He could turn a phrase quite brilliantly. But after a year or so, I had to come to grips with his bigotry against black people and his general inability to overcome his mistrust of urban pols (although he didn’t share the anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism of some of his followers).
The problem was, in the America of a century ago, Bryan would not have been a hero to the white evangelical grassroots if he had been as clever and cosmopolitan a pol as FDR. So I ended up with a historian’s sense of perspective about the limits of the perceptions and achievements of the past. In recent speeches, E.J. Dionne muses that perhaps we should ask “What Would William Jennings Bryan Do?” I’m not sure that’s a useful question.
The wedding announcements in The New York Times are, as all amateur sociologists know, a valuable source of raw data concerning prestige-display behavior among the American elite. But they do not provide the best index of any individual’s social status. Much more reliable in that respect are the obituaries, which provide an estimate of the deceased party’s total accumulated social capital. They may also venture a guess, between the lines, about posterity’s likely verdict on the person.
In the case of John Kenneth Galbraith, who died last week, the Times obituary could scarcely fail to register the man’s prominence. He was an economist, diplomat, Harvard professor, and advisor to JFK. Royalties on his book The Affluent Society (1958) guaranteed that -- as a joke of the day had it -- he was a full member. But the notice also made a point of emphasizing that his reputation was in decline. Venturing with uncertain steps into a characterization of his economic thought, the obituary treated Galbraith as kind of fossil from some distant era, back when Keynsian liberals still roamed the earth.
He was patrician in manner, but an acid-tongued critic of what he once called "the sophisticated and derivative world of the Eastern seaboard." He was convinced that for a society to be not merely affluent but livable (an important distinction now all but lost) it had to put more political and economic power in the hands of people who exercised very little of it. It was always fascinating to watch him debate William F. Buckley -- encounters too suave to call blood sport, but certainly among the memorable moments on public television during the pre-"Yanni at the Acropolis" era. He called Buckley the ideal debating partner: “pleasant, quick in response, invulnerable to insult, and invariably wrong.”
Galbraith’s influence was once strong enough to inspire Congressional hearings to discuss the implications of his book The New Industrial State (1967). Clearly that stature has waned. But Paul Samuelson was on to something when he wrote, “Ken Galbraith, like Thorstein Veblen, will be remembered and read when most of us Nobel Laureates will be buried in footnotes down in dusty library stacks.”
The reference to the author of The Theory of the Leisure Class is very apropos, for a number of reasons. Veblen’s economic thought left a deep mark on Galbraith. That topic has been explored at length by experts, and I dare not bluff it here. But the affinity between them went deeper than the conceptual. Both men grew up in rural areas among ethnic groups that never felt the slightest inferiority vis-a-vis the local establishment. Veblen was a second-generation Norwegian immigrant in Wisconsin. Galbraith, whose family settled in a small town in Canada, absorbed the Scotch principle that it was misplaced politeness not to let a fool know what you thought of him. “Better that he be aware of his reputation,” as Galbraith later wrote, “for this would encourage reticence, which goes well with stupidity.”
Like Veblen, he had a knack for translating satirical intuitions into social-scientific form. But Galbraith also worked the other way around. He could parody the research done by “the best and the brightest,” writing sardonically about what was really at stake in their work.
I’m thinking, in particular, of The McLandress Dimension (1963), a volume that has not received its due. The Times calls it a novel, which only proves that neither of the two obituary writers had read the book. And it gets just two mentions, in passing, in Richard Parker’s otherwise exhaustive biography John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005).
While by no means a major work, The McLandress Dimension deserves better than that. Besides retrieving the book from obscurity, I’ll take a quick look at a strange episode in its afterlife.
The McLandress Dimension, a short collection of articles attributed to one “Mark Epernay,” was published by Houghton Mifflin during the late fall of 1963. At the time, Galbraith was the U.S. ambassador to India. Portions of the book had already appeared in Esquire and Harper’s. One reviewer, who was clearly in on the joke, introduced Mark Epernay as “a gifted young journalist who has specialized in the popularization -- one might almost say the vulgarization -- of what one has learned to call the behavioral sciences.”
The pen name combined an allusion to Mark Twain with a reference to a town in France that Galbraith had come across in a book about the Franco-Prussian war. (Either that, or on the side of a wine crate; he was not consistent on this point.) “The pseudonym was necessary because I was then an ambassador,” recalled Galbraith in a memoir, “and the State Department required its people to submit their writing for review while forbidding them to take compensation for it.... However, it did not seem that this rule need apply to anything written in true anonymity under a false name. Accordingly, I wrote to the then Attorney General, Mr. Robert Kennedy, proposing that I forego the clearance and asking if I might keep the money. So difficult was the question or so grave the precedent that my letter was never answered.”
But Epernay was just the foil for Galbraith’s real alter ego -- the famous Herschel McLandress, the former professor of psychiatric measurement at the Harvard Medical School and chief consultant to the Noonan Psychiatric Clinic in Boston. The researcher was a frequent recipient of grants from the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and sundry other nonprofit geysers of soft money. His ideas were the subject, as Epernay put it, “of some of the most trenchant debates in recent years at the Christmas meetings of the American Association for Psychometrics.” While his name was not yet a household word, McLandress had an impressive (if top-secret) list of clients among prominent Americans.
The work that defined his career was his discovery of “the McLandress Coefficient” – a unit of measurement defined, in laymen’s terms, as “the arithmetic mean or average of intervals of time during which a subject’s thoughts centered on some substantive phenomenon other than his own personality.”
The exact means of calculating the “McL-C,” as it was abbreviated, involved psychometric techniques rather too arcane for a reporter to discuss. But a rough estimate could be made based on how long any given person talked without using the first-person singular pronoun. This could be determined “by means of a recording stopwatch carried unobtrusively in the researcher’s jacket pocket.”
A low coefficient -- anything under, say, one minute -- “implies a close and diligent concern by the individual for matters pertaining to his own personality.” Not surprisingly, people in show business tended to fall into this range.
Writers had a somewhat higher score, though not by a lot. Epernay noted that Gore Vidal had a rating of 12.5 minutes. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Vidal responded, ““I find this ... one finds this odd.”
What drew the most attention were the coefficients for various political figures. Nikita Khrushchev had the same coefficient as Elizabeth Taylor – three minutes. Martin Luther King clocked in at four hours. Charles de Gaulle was found to have the very impressive rating of 7 hours, 30 minutes. (Further studies revealed this figure to be somewhat misleading, because the general did not make any distinction between France and himself.) At the other extreme was Richard Nixon, whose thoughts never directed beyond himself for more than three seconds.
Epernay enjoyed his role as Boswell to the great psychometrician. Later articles discussed the other areas of McLandress’s research. He worked out an exact formula for calculating the Maximum Prestige Horizon of people in different professions. He developed the “third-dimensional departure” for acknowledging the merits of both sides in any controversial topic while carefully avoiding any form of extremism. (This had been mastered, noted Epernay, by “the more scholarly Democrats.”)
And McLandress reduced the size of the State Department by creating a fully automated foreign policy -- using computers to extrapolate the appropriate response to any new situation, based on established precedent. “Few things more clearly mark the amateur in diplomacy,” the reporter explained, “than his inability to see that even the change from the wrong policy to the right policy involves the admission of previous error and hence is damaging to national prestige.”
One piece in the book covered the life and work of someone who has played a considerable role in the development of the modern Republican Party, though neither Galbraith nor Epernay could have known that at the time.
The figure in question was Allston C. Wheat, “one of the best tennis players ever graduated from Cornell” as well as a very successful “wholesaler of ethical drugs, antibiotics, and rubber sundries in Philadelphia.” Upon retirement, Wheat threw himself into he writings of Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, and Barry Goldwater, among others. His studies left Wheat sorely concerned about the menace of creeping socialism in America. As well he might be. Certain developments in the American educational system particularly raised his ire. Wheat raised the alarm against that insidious subversive indoctrination in collectivist ideology known as “team sports.”
“Every healthy able-bodied young American is encouraged to participate in organized athletic events,” Wheat noted in a widely-circulated pamphlet. This was the first step in brainwashing them. For an emphasis on “team spirit” undermines good, old-fashioned, dog-eat-dog American individualism. “The team,” he warned, “is the social group which always comes first.... If you are looking for the real advance guard for modern Communism, you should go to the field-houses and the football stadiums.”
The tendency of the Kennedys to play touch football at family gatherings proved that “they are collectivist to the core.” And then there was the clincher: “Liberals have never liked golf.”
Wheat’s dark suspicions had a solid historical basis. “In 1867,” Epernay pointed out in a footnote, “the first rules for college football were drawn up in Princeton, New Jersey. That was the year of the publication of Das Kapital.... Basketball was invented in 1891 and the Socialist Labor Party ran its first candidate for President in the following year.” Coincidence? Don’t be gullible. As the saying has it, there’s no “I” in “team.”
The goal of Wheat’s movement, the Campaign for Athletic Individualism, was to ensure that young people’s McLandress Coefficients were low enough to keep America free. Today, Wheat has been forgotten. No doubt about it, however: His legacy grows.
In many ways,The McLandress Dimension was in many ways a product of its moment -- that is, Camelot, the early 60s, a time of heavy traffic on the wonky crossroads where social science and public policy meet.
Books like Vance Packard’s The Status Seekers were showing that the American social hierarchy, while in transition, was very much in place. A celebrity culture in the arts, politics, and academe was emerging to rival the one based in Hollywood. The sort of left-liberal who read Galbraith with approval could assume that the McCarthyist worldview belonged in the dustbin of history.
The McLandress Dimension satirized all these things -- but in a genial way. It said, in effect: “Let’s not be too serious about these things. That would be stupid.”
So Galbraith’s timing was good. But it was also, in a way, terrible. Articles about the book started appearing in early December -- meaning they had been written at least a few weeks earlier, before the assassination of the president. There was a lightheartedness that must have been jarring. Most of the reviewers played along with the gag. One magazine sent a telegram to the embassy in India, asking Galbraith, “Are you Mark Epernay?” He cabled back, ”Who’s Mark Epernay?”
But the season for that kind of high spirits was over. If Herschell McLandress was the embodiment of the number-crunching technocratic mentality in 1963, his place in the public eye was soon taken by Robert McNamara. Such “extremists in defense of liberty” as Allston Wheat were trounced during the 1964 presidential campaign -- only to emerge from it stronger and more determined than ever. Galbraith’s serious writings were a major influence on the Great Society programs of the Johnson administration. But that consummation that was also, with hindsight, a swan’s song.
As for The McLandress Dimension itself, the writings of Mark Epernay found a place in the bibliographies of books on Galbraith. But they were ignored even by people writing on the development of his thought. I recently did a search to find out if anyone ever cited the work of Herschel McLandress in a scholarly article, perhaps as an inside joke. Alas, no. All that turns up in JSTOR, for example, is a brief mention Galbraith’s book in an analysis of the humorous literature on Richard Nixon. (There is, incidentally, rather a lot of it.)
And yet the story does not quite end there.
In 1967, the Dial Press issued Report from Iron Mountain: On the Possibility and Desirability of Peace, which the publisher claimed was in fact a secret government document. The topic was the socio-economic implications of global peace. It was prepared, according to the introduction, by a group of prominent but unnamed social scientists. The prose was leaden, full of the jargon and gaseous syntax of think-tank documents.
The challenge facing the Iron Mountain group, it seemed, was to explore any adverse side-effects of dismantling the warfare state. The difficulties were enormous. Military expenditures were basic to the economy, they noted. Threat from an external enemy fostered social cohesion. And the Army was, after all, a good place for potentially violent young men.
It would be necessary to find a way to preserve all the useful aspects of war preparation, and to contain all the problems it helped solve. A considerable amount of social restructuring would be required should the Cold War end. The think tank proposed various options that leaders might want to keep in mind. It could prove necessary to sponsor new forms of extremely violent entertainment, introduce slavery, and concoct a plausible story about the threat of extraterrestrial invasion.
This was, of course, a satire on the “crackpot realism” (as C. Wright Mills once termed it) of the Rand Institute and the like. It was concocted by Leonard Lewin, a humor writer, and Victor Navasky, the editor of The Nation. But the parody was so good as to be almost seamless. It proposed the most extreme ideas in an incredibly plodding fashion. And the scenarios were only marginally more deranged-sounding than anything mooted by Herman Kahn, the strategist of winnable thermonuclear war.
Serious journals devoted articles to debating the authenticity of the document. One prominent sociologist wrote a long article suggesting that it was so close to the real thing that one might as well take it seriously. At one point, people in the White House were reportedly making inquiries to determine whether Report from Iron Mountain might not be the real thing.
In the midst of all this, Herschel McLandress, who had retreated into silence for almost four years, suddenly returned to public life. In an article appearing in The Washington Post, the great psychometrician confirmed that Report from Iron Mountain was exactly what it claimed to be. He had been part of the working group involved in the initial brainstorming. He chided whoever was responsible for leaking the document. By no means were Americans ready to face the horrors of peace. He did not challenge any of the report’s conclusions. “My reservations,” McLandress stated, “relate only to the wisdom of releasing it to an obviously unconditioned public.”
Writing from behind his persona, Galbraith turned in a credible impression of social-science punditry at its most pompous. (You can read the entire review here.) It must have been very funny if you knew what was going on. And presumably some people did remember that McLandress was himself a figment of the imagination.
But not everyone did. Over time, Report from Iron Mountain became required reading for conspiracy theorists -- who, by the 1990s, were quite sure it was a blueprint for the New World Order. After all, hadn’t a reviewer vouched for its authenticity in The Washington Post?
And what did Galbraith think of all this? I have to.... One has to wonder.
For better and for worse, the American reception of contemporary French thought has often followed a script that frames everything in terms of generational shifts. Lately, that has usually meant baby-boomer narcissism -- as if the youngsters of '68 don't have enough cultural mirrors already. Someone like Bernard-Henri Lévy, the roving playboy philosopher, lends himself to such branding without reserve. Most of his thinking is adequately summed up by a thumbnail biography -- something like, "BHL was a young Maoist radical in 1968, but then he denounced totalitarianism, and started wearing his shirts unbuttoned, and the French left has never recovered."
Nor are American academics altogether immune to such prepackaged blendings of theory and lifestyle. Hey, you -- the Foucauldian with the leather jacket that doesn't fit anymore....Yeah, well, you're complicit too.
But there are thinkers who don't really follow the standard scripts very well, and Pierre Rosanvallon is one them. Democracy Past and Future, the selection of his writings just published by Columbia University Press, provides a long overdue introduction to a figure who defies both sound bites and the familiar academic division of labor. Born in 1948, he spent much of the 1970s as a sort of thinker-in-residence for a major trade union, the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail, for which he organized seminars and conferences seeking to create a non-Marxist "second left" within the Socialist Party. He emerged as a theoretical voice of the autogestion (self-management) movement. His continuing work on the problem of democracy was honored in 2001 when he became a professor at the Collège de France, where Rosanvallon lectures on the field he calls "the philosophical history of the political."
Rosanvallon has written about the welfare state. Still, he isn't really engaged in political science. He closely studies classical works in political philosophy -- but in a way that doesn't quite seem like intellectual history, since he's trying to use the ideas as much as analyze them. He has published a study of the emergence of universal suffrage that draws on social history. Yet his overall project -- that of defining the essence of democracy -- is quite distinct from that of most social historians. At the same time (and making things all the more complicated) he doesn't do the kind of normative political philosophy one now associates with John Rawls or Jurgen Habermas.
Intrigued by a short intellectual autobiography that Rosanvallon presented at a conference a few years ago, I was glad to see the Columbia volume, which offers a thoughtful cross-section of texts from the past three decades. The editor, Samuel Moyn, is an assistant professor of history at Columbia. He answered my questions on Rosanvallon by e-mail.
Q:Rosanvallon is of the same generation as BHL. They sometimes get lumped together. Is that inevitable? Is it misleading?
A: They are really figures of a different caliber and significance, though you are right to suggest that they lived through the same pivotal moment. Even when he first emerged, Bernard-Henri Lévy faced doubts that he mattered, and a suspicion that he had fabricated his own success through media savvy. One famous thinker asked whether the "new philosophy" that BHL championed was either new or philosophy; and Cornelius Castoriadis attacked BHL and others as "diversionists." Yet BHL drew on some of the same figures Rosanvallon did -- Claude Lefort for example -- in formulating his critique of Stalinist totalitarianism. But Lefort, like Castoriadis and Rosanvallon himself, regretted the trivialization that BHL's meteoric rise to prominence involved.
So the issue is what the reduction of the era to the "new philosophy" risks missing. In retrospect, there is a great tragedy in the fact that BHL and others constructed the "antitotalitarian moment" (as that pivotal era in the late 1970s is called) in a way that gave the impression that a sententious "ethics" and moral vigilance were the simple solution to the failures of utopian politics. And of course BHL managed to convince some people -- though chiefly in this country, if the reception of his recent book is any evidence -- that he incarnated the very "French intellectual" whose past excesses he often denounced.
In the process, other visions of the past and future of the left were ignored. The reception was garbled -- but it is always possible to undo old mistakes. I see the philosophy of democracy Rosanvallon is developing as neither specifically French nor of a past era. At the same time, the goal is not to substitute a true philosopher for a false guru. The point is to use foreign thinkers who are challenging to come to grips with homegrown difficulties.
Q:Rosanvallon's work doesn't fit very well into some of the familiar disciplinary grids. One advantage of being at the Collège de France is that you get to name your own field, which he calls "the philosophical history of the political." But where would he belong in terms of the academic terrain here?
A: You're right. It's plausible to see him as a trespasser across the various disciplinary boundaries. If that fact makes his work of potential interest to a great many people -- in philosophy, politics, sociology, and history -- it also means that readers might have to struggle to see that the protocols of their own disciplines may not exhaust all possible ways of studying their questions.
But it is not as if there have not been significant interventions in the past -- from Max Weber for example, or Michel Foucault in living memory -- that were recognized as doing something relevant to lots of different existing inquiries. In fact, that point suggests that it may miss the point to try to locate such figures on disciplinary maps that are ordinarily so useful. If I had to sum up briefly what Rosanvallon is doing as an intellectual project, I would say that the tradition of which he's a part -- which includes his teacher Lefort as well as some colleagues like Marcel Gauchet and others -- is trying to replace Marxism with a convincing alternative social theory.
Most people write about Marxism as a political program, and of course any alternative to it will also have programmatic implications. But Marxism exercised such appeal because it was also an explanatory theory, one that claimed, by fusing the disciplines, to make a chaotic modern history -- and perhaps history as a whole -- intelligible. Its collapse, as Lefort's own teacher Maurice Merleau-Ponty clearly saw, threatened to leave confusion in its wake, unless some alternative to it is available. (Recall Merleau-Ponty's famous proclamation: "Marxism is not a philosophy of history; it is the philosophy of history, and to renounce it is to dig the grave of reason in history.")
Rosanvallon seems to move about the disciplines because, along with others in the same school, he has been trying to put together a total social theory that would integrate all the aspects of experience into a convincing story. They call the new overall framework they propose "the political," and Rosanvallon personally has focused on making sense of democratic modernity in all its facets. Almost no one I know about in the Anglo-American world has taken up so ambitious and forbidding a transdisciplinary task, but it is a highly important project.
Q:As the title of your collection neatly sums up, Rosanvallon's definitive preoccupation is democracy. But he's not just giving two cheers for it, or drawing up calls for more of it. Nor is his approach, so far as I can tell, either descriptive nor prescriptive. So what does that leave left for a philosopher to do?
A: At the core of his conception of democracy, there is a definitive problem: The new modern sovereign (the "people" who now rule) is impossible to identify or locate with any assurance. Democracy is undoubtedly a liberatory event -- a happy tale of the death of kings. But it must also face the sadly intractable problem of what it means to replace them.
Of course, the history of political theory contains many proposals for discovering the general will. Yet empirical political scientists have long insisted that "the people" do not preexist the procedures chosen for knowing their will. In different words, "the people" is not a naturally occurring object. Rosanvallon's work is, in one way or another, always about this central modern paradox: If, as the U.S. Constitution for instance says, "We the people" are now in charge, it is nevertheless true that we the people have never existed together in one place, living at one time, speaking with one voice. Who, then, is to finally say who "we" are?
The point may seem either abstract or trivial. But the power of Rosanvallon's work comes from his documentation of the ways -- sometimes blatant and sometimes subtle -- that much of the course and many of the dilemmas of modern history can be read through the lens of this paradox. For example, the large options in politics can also be understood as rival answers to the impossible quandary or permanent enigma of the new ruler's identity. Individual politicians claim special access to the popular will either because they might somehow channel what everyone wants or because they think that a rational elite possesses ways of knowing what the elusive sovereign would or should want. Democracy has also been the story, of course, of competing interpretations of what processes or devices are most likely to lead to results approximating the sovereign will.
Recently, Rosanvallon has begun to add to this central story by suggesting that there have always been -- and increasingly now are -- lots of ways outside electoral representation that the people can manifest their will, during the same era that the very idea that there exists a coherent people with a single will has entered a profound crisis.
One of the more potent implications of Rosanvallon's premise that there is no right answer to the question of the people's identity is that political study has to be conceptual but also historical. Basic concepts like the people might suggest a range of possible ways for the sovereign will to be interpreted, but only historical study can uncover the rich variety of actual responses to the difficulty.
The point, Rosanvallon thinks, is especially relevant to political theorists, who often believe they can, simply by thinking hard about what democracy must mean, finally emerge with its true model, whether based on a hypothetical contract, an ideal of deliberation, or something else. But the premise also means that democracy's most basic question is not going to go away, even if there are better and worse responses.
Q:Now to consider the relationship between Rosanvallon's work and political reality "on the ground" right now. Let's start with a domestic topic: the debate over immigration. Or more accurately, the debate over the status of people who are now part of the U.S. economy, but are effectively outside the polity. I'm not asking "what would Rosanvallon do?" here, but rather wondering: Does his work shed any light on the situation? What kinds of questions or points would Rosanvallonists (assuming there are any) be likely to raise in the discussion?
A: It's fair to ask how such an approach might help in analyzing contemporary problems. But his approach always insists on restoring the burning issues of the day to a long historical perspective, and on relating them to democracy's foundational difficulties. Without pretending to guess what Rosanvallon might say about America's recent debate, I might offer a couple of suggestions about how his analysis might begin.
The controversy over immigrants is so passionate, this approach might begin by arguing, not simply because of economic and logistical concerns but also because it reopens (though it was never closed!) the question of the identity of the people in a democracy. The challenge immigrants pose, after all, is not one of inclusion simply in a cultural sense, as Samuel Huntington recently contended, but also and more deeply in a conceptual sense.
In a fascinating chapter of his longest work, on the history of suffrage, Rosanvallon takes up the history of French colonialism, including its immigrant aftermath. There he connects different historical experiences of immigrant inclusion to the conceptual question of what the criteria for exclusion are, arguing that if democracies do not come to a clear resolution about who is inside and outside their polity, they will vacillate between two unsatisfactory syndromes. One is the "liberal" response of taking mere presence on the ground as a proxy for citizenship, falsely converting a political problem into one of future social integration. The other is the "conservative" response of of conceptualizing exclusion, having failed to resolve its meaning politically, in the false terms of cultural, religious, or even racial heterogeneity. Both responses avoid the real issue of the political boundaries of the people.
But Rosanvallon's more recent work allows for another way of looking at the immigration debate. In a new book coming out in French in the fall entitled "Counterdemocracy," whose findings are sketched in a preliminary and summary fashion in the fascinating postscript to the English-language collection, Rosanvallon tries to understand the proliferation of ways that popular expression occurs outside the classical parliamentary conception of representation. There, he notes that immigration is one of several issues around which historically "the people" have manifested their search for extraparliamentary voice.
For Rosanvallon, the point here is not so much to condemn populist backlash, as if it would help much simply to decry the breakdown of congressional lawmaking under pressure. Rather, one might have to begin by contemplating the historical emergence of a new form of democracy -- what he calls unpolitical democracy -- that often crystallizes today around such a hot-button topic as the status of immigrants. This reframing doesn't solve the problem but might help see that its details turn out to be implicated in a general transformation of how democracy works.
Q:OK, now on to foreign policy. In some circles, the invasion of Iraq was justified as antitotalitarianism in action, and as the first stage a process of building democracy. (Such are the beauty and inspiration of high ideals.) Does Rosanvallon's work lend itself to support for "regime change" via military means? Has he written anything about "nation building"?
A: This is a very important question. I write in my introduction to the collection about the contemporary uses of antitotalitarianism, and I do so mainly to make criticize the recent drift in uses of that concept.
Of course, when the critique of totalitarianism activated a generation, it was the Soviet Union above all that drew their fire. But their critique was always understood to have its most salient implications for the imagination of reform at home, and especially for the renewal of the left. This is what has changed recently, in works of those "liberal hawks," like Peter Beinart and Paul Berman, who made themselves apologists for the invasion of Iraq in the name of antitotalitarian values. Not only did they eviscerate the theoretical substance on which the earlier critique of totalitarianism drew -- from the work of philosophers like Hannah Arendt and Claude Lefort among others -- but they wholly externalized the totalitarian threat so that their critique of it no longer had any connection to a democratic program. It became purely a rhetoric for the overthrow of enemies rather than a program for the creation or reform of democracies. In the updated approach, what democracy is does not count as a problem.
It is clear that this ideological development, with all of its real-world consequences, has spelled the end of the antitotalitarian coalition that came together across borders, uniting the European left (Eastern and Western) with American liberalism, thirty years ago. That the attempt to update it and externalize that project had failed became obvious even before the Iraq adventure came to grief -- the project garnered too few allies internationally.
Now it is perfectly true that the dissolution of this consensus leaves open the problem of how democrats should think about foreign policy, once spreading it evangelistically has been unmasked as delusional or imperialistic. A few passages in the collection suggest that Rosanvallon thinks the way to democratize the world is through democratization of existing democracies -- the reinvigoration of troubled democracies is prior to the project of their externalization and duplication. Clearly this response will not satisfy anyone who believes that the main problem in the world is democracy's failure to take root everywhere, rather than its profound difficulties where it already is. But clarifying the history and present of democracy inside is of undoubted relevance to its future outside.
Q:There are some very striking passages in the book that discuss the seeming eclipse of the political now. More is involved than the withdrawl from civic participation into a privatized existence. (At the same time, that's certainly part of it.) Does Rosanvallon provide an account of how this hollowing-out of democracy has come to pass? Can it be reversed? And would its reversal necessarily be a good thing?
A: One of the most typical responses to the apparent rise of political apathy in recent decades has been nostalgia for some prior society -- classical republics or early America are often cited -- that are supposed to have featured robust civic engagement. The fashion of "republicanism" in political theory, from Arendt to Michael Sandel or Quentin Skinner, is a good example. But Rosanvallon observes that the deep explanation for what is happening is a collapse of the model of democracy based on a powerful will.
The suggestion here is that the will of the people is not simply hard to locate or identify; its very existence as the foundation of democratic politics has become hard to credit anymore. The challenge is to respond by taking this transformation as the starting point of the analysis. And there appears to be no return to what has been lost.
But in his new work, anticipated in the postscript, Rosanvallon shows that the diagnosis may be faulty anyway. What is really happening, he suggests, is not apathy towards or retreat from politics in a simple sense, but the rise of new forms of democracy -- or counterdemocracy -- outside the familiar model of participation and involvement. New forms seeking expression have multiplied, through an explosion of devices, even if they may seem an affront to politics as it has ordinarily been conceptualized.
Rosanvallon's current theory is devoted to the project of putting the multiplication of representative mechanisms -- ones that do not fit on existing diagrams of power -- into one picture. But the goal, he says, is not just to make sense of them but also to find a way for analysis to lead to reform. As one of Rosanvallon's countrymen and predecessors, Alexis de Tocqueville, might have put it: Democracy still requires a new political science, one that can take it by the hand and help to sanctify its striving.
For further reading: Professor Moyn is co-author (with Andrew Jainhill of the University of California at Berkeley) of an extensive analysis of the sources and inner tensions of Rosanvallon's thought on democracy, available online.Â And in an essay appearing on the Open Democracy Webs ite in 2004, Rosanvallon reflected on globalization, terrorism, and the war in Iraq.
Tomorrow night at a church in London, there will be a gathering of several hundred people to celebrate the launch of "The Euston Manifesto" -- a short document in which one sector of the British and American left declares itself to be in favor of pluralist and secular democracy, and against blowing people up for the glory of Allah.
The Eustonians also support open-source software. (I have read the document a few times now but am still not sure how that one got in there. It seems like an afterthought.)
More to the point, the Eustonians promise not to ask too many questions -- nor any really embarrassing ones -- about how we got into Iraq. The important thing, now, is that it all end well. Which is to say, that the occupation help build a new Iraq: a place of secular, pluralist democracy, where people do not blow each other up for the glory of Allah.
Suppose that a civic-minded person -- a secular humanist, let's say, and one fond of Linux -- takes a closer look at the manifesto. Such a reader will expect the document to discuss the question of means and ends. This might be addressed on the ethical plane, at some level of abstraction. Or it might be handled with a wonky attention to policy detail. In any case, the presumed reader (who is nothing if not well-meaning) will certainly want to know how Eustonian principles are to be realized in the real world. In the case of Iraq, for example, there is the problem of getting from the absolutely disastrous status quo to the brilliant future, so hailed.
Many of the signatories of the manifesto are, or until recently were, some variety or other of Marxist. Its main author, for example, is Norman Geras, a professor emeritus of government at the University of Manchester. His work includes Literature of Revolution, a volume of astute essays on Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg. (Full disclosure: Geras and I once belonged to the same worldwide revolutionary socialist organization, the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, and probably both choke up a little when singing “The Red Flag”).
Surely, then, the Euston Manifesto will bear at least some resemblance to the one written by a certain unemployed German doctor of philosophy in 1848? That is, it can be expected to provide a long-term strategic conception of how the world reached its current situation (“The history of all hitherto existing society is a history of class struggles”). And it will identify the forces in society that have emerged to transform it (“Workers of the world unite!”). And from this rigorous conceptual structure, the document can then deduce some appropriate shorter-term tactics. In The Communist Manifesto, for example, Marx and Engels pointed to universal suffrage and a progressive income tax as mighty strides forward towards the destruction of capitalism.
OK, so the proposals might not work out as planned.... Hindsight is 20-20. But a manifesto -- to be worth anyone’s time, let alone signature -- will, of course, be concrete. At the event in London tomorrow night, the comrades will rally. Surely they would never settle for broad and bland appeals to high ideals, rendered in language slightly less inspiring than the Cub Scout oath?
Well, judge for yourself. “The Euston Manifesto” was actually unveiled in April, when it was first published online. It is has an official Web site. The inspiration for it had come during a meeting at a pub near the Euston stop on the London Underground. (Hence the name.) The document has been debated and denounced at great and redundant length in the left-wing blogosphere. So the fact that the event this week in London is being described by the Eustonians as a “launch” is puzzling, at least at first. But when you realize what a rhetorical drubbing the manifesto has taken, the need for a public gathering is easier to understand. The Eustonians want to show that their heads are bloody but unbowed, etc.
The most cogent arguments against the manifesto have already been made. In April, Marc Mulholand, a historian who is a fellow at Oxford University, presented a series of pointed criticisms at his blog that seemed to take the Eustonian principles more seriously than the manifesto itself did. “Why should we expect pluralist states to foster the spread of democratic government?” he asked. “How can we audit their contribution to this universal ideal? What mechanisms ensure the coincidence of state real politick and liberal internationalism?”
And D.D. Guttenplan -- the London correspondent for “The Nation” and producer of a documentary called Edward Said: The Last Interview -- weighed in with an article in The Guardian accusing the Eustonians of, in effect, staging a historical reenactment of battle scenes from the Cold War.
In passing, Guttenplan wrote of the manifesto that “every word in it is a lie” – a bit of hyperbole with historical overtones probably lost on his British readers. (In a memorable denunciation -- and one that prompted a lawsuit -- of sometime Communist sympathizer Lillian Hellman’s work, Mary McCarthy said: “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”) Guttenplan tells me that he now considers his remark “a bit intemperate” yet still calls the manifesto “that bastard child of senescent sociology and the laptop bombardiers.”
Mulholand performed a kind of immanent critique of the Eustonians’ liberal-humanitarian proclamations. That is, he held their rhetoric up against their concepts -- and found the manifesto wanting no matter how you looked at it.
For Guttenplan, the manifesto makes more sense as a case of political bait-and-switch. “The political glue holding these folks together,” he told me, “was a kind of Zionism that dare not speak its name, in which anti-Semitism was the only racism worth getting excited about, and opposition to any kind of practical pressure on Israel or its UK supporters/defenders the only program that got these folks up from their laptops. Personally I find that both sneaky and, as my late mother would say, bad for the Jews.” (Complex irony alert! Guttenplan himself is Jewish.)
The liberal-internationalist case for military intervention in Iraq has recently been hashed out at length -- and in all of its disconcertingly belated moral passion and geopolitical irrelevance -- by the contributors to A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq, published last year by the University of California Press. The editor of that volume, Thomas Cushman, is a professor of sociology at Wellesley College, and a member of the editorial board of the online journal Democratiya -- as is Norman Geras, who drafted the Euston Manifesto.
Many of the contributions to the book and the journal are intelligently argued. They are worth the attention even -- and perhaps especially -- of someone opposed to the war. For a whole wing of the left, of course, to admit that one’s opponents might be capable of arguments (rather than rationalizations) is already a sign of apostasy. But I’ll take my chances. After all, you can only listen to Noam Chomsky blame every problem in the world on American corporations just so many times. It’s good to stretch your mental legs every so often, and go wandering off to see how people think on the other side of the barricades.
That said, reading the Euston Manifesto has proven remarkably unrewarding -- even downright irritating. It is not a matter of profound disagreements. (I am, broadly speaking, in favor of pluralist and secular democracy, and against blowing people up for the glory of Allah.) But the Eustonians seem to be issuing blank moral checks for whatever excellent adventures George Bush and Tony Blair decide to undertake.
They call for supporting the reconstruction of Iraq “rather than picking through the rubble of the arguments over intervention.” The systematic campaign of disinformation and phony diplomacy engineered over the course of two years preceding the invasion, then, is to be forgotten. It’s hard to imagine a more explicit call for intellectual irresponsibility. Or, for that matter, a less adequate metaphorical image. Anyone upset by “the rubble of the arguments over intervention” is definitely facing the wrong crater.
The Eustonians seem also perfectly indifferent to the cumulative damage being done to the very fiber of democracy itself. This summer’s issue of Bookforum contains a few poems by Guantanamo Bay detainees -- part of a much larger body confiscated by the military. As a lawyer for the detainees notes, a poem containing the line “Forgive me, my dear wife” was immediately classified as an attempt to communicate with the outside.
It is hard to imagine that this sort of thing really advances the Global War on Terror, or whatever we’re calling it now. But it is not without consequences. It destroys what it pretends to protect.
As I was musing over all of this, a friend pointed out a conspicuous absence from the list of signatories to the manifesto: Todd Gitlin, a professor of sociology and journalism at Columbia University. His book The Intellectuals and the Flag, published earlier this year by Columbia University Press, defends the idea of left-wing American patriotism with a frank interest “in the necessary task of defeating the jihadist enemy.”
This would seem to put him in the Eustonian camp, yet he did not endorse the manifesto. Why not? I contacted him by e-mail to ask. “I recognize a shoddy piece of intellectual patchwork when I see one,” Gitlin responded.
He cites a passage referring to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as “a liberation of the Iraqi people." A fine thing, to be sure. The sight of a humiliated dictator is good for the soul. “But the resulting carnage is scarcely worthy of the term ‘liberation,’” Gitlin told me. “I'm leery of the euphemism.”
Humanitarian interventionism needs an element of realist calculation. “The duty of ‘intervention and rescue’ when a state commits appalling atrocities,” he continued, “must be tempered by a hard-headed assessment of what is attainable and what are the reasonably foreseeable results of intervention. The document is cavalier about the ease of riding to the rescue. So while I support the lion's and lioness's share of the document's principles, I find it disturbingly, well, utopian. It lacks a sense of the tragic. I have not foregone the forced innocence of the anti-American left only to sign up with another variety of rigid, forced innocence.”
But in the final analysis, there was something else bothersome about the manifesto -- something I couldn’t quite put a finger on, for a while. A vague dissatisfaction, a feeling of blurry inconsequentiality....
Then it suddenly came into focus: The manifesto did not seem like the product of a real movement, nor the founding document of a new organization – nor anything, really, but a proclamation of dissatisfaction by people in an Internet-based transatlantic social network.
I dropped Norman Geras a line, asking about the virtuality of the phenomenon. Aren’t the Eustonians doomed to a kind of perpetual and constitutive blogginess?
“It's true that the manifesto is not seen by us as the rallying point for a particular organization,” Geras wrote back. “But it is seen as a rallying point nonetheless - as a focus for debate on the liberal-left, and for initiatives that might follow from that. The focus for debate part has already happened: there's been an enormous response to the manifesto and not only on the internet, but with significant press coverage as well. The venue for the launch meeting had to be changed because we ran out of tickets so fast for the original venue. So this isn't just a ‘virtual’ affair.”
The question from Lenin’s pamphlet comes up: What is to be done? “I'm not going to try to predict where or how far it will go,” says Geras. “One step at a time. But we already have more than 1,500 signatories and that means a lot of people in touch with us and interested in what the manifesto is saying. After the launch, we'll see what we want to do next in the way of forums, conferences, campaigns.”
Perhaps frustration with the document is misplaced? Something better might yet emerge -- once well-meaning people see the limits of the good intentions they have endorsed. You never know. But for now, with only the text to go by, it is hard to shake a suspicion that the Euston Manifesto owes less to Marx than to MySpace.
George Scialabba is an essayist and critic working at Harvard University who has just published a volume of selected pieces under the title Divided Mind, issued by a small press in Boston called Arrowsmith. The publisher does not have a Web site. You cannot, as yet, get Divided Mind through Amazon, though it is said to be available in a few Cambridge bookstores. This may be the future of underground publishing: Small editions, zero publicity, and you have to know the secret password to get a copy. (I'll give contact information for the press at the end of this column, for anyone willing to put a check in the mail the old-fashioned way.)
In any case, it is about time someone brought out a collection of Scialabba's work. That it's only happening now (15 years after the National Book Critics Circle gave him its first award for excellence in reviewing) is a sign that things are not quite right in the world of belles lettres. He writes in what William Hazlitt -- the patron saint of generalist essayists -- called the "the familiar style," and he is sometimes disarmingly explicit about the difficulties, even the pain, he experiences in trying to resolve cultural contradictions. That is no way to create the aura of mystery and mastery so crucial for awesome intellectual authority.
Scialabba has his admirers, even so, and one of the pleasant surprises of Divided Mind is the set of comments on the back. "I am one of the many readers who stay on the lookout for George Scialabba's byline," writes Richard Rorty. "He cuts to the core of the ethical and political dilemmas he discusses." The novelist Norman Rush lauds Scialabba's prose itself for "bring[ing] the review-essay to a high state of development, incorporating elements of memoir and skillfully deploying the wide range of literary and historical references he commands." And there is a blurb from Christopher Hitchens praising his "eloquence and modesty" -- though perhaps that is just a gesture of relief that Scialabba has not reprinted his candid reassessment of Hitch, post-9/11.
One passage early in the collection gives a roll call of exemplary figures practicing a certain kind of writing. It includes Randolph Bourne, Bertrand Russell, George Orwell, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, among others. "Their primary training and frame of reference," Scialabba writes, "were the humanities, usually literature or philosophy, and they habitually, even if only implicitly, employed values and ideals derived from the humanities to criticize contemporary politics.... Their 'specialty' lay not in unearthing generally unavailable facts, but in penetrating especially deeply into the shared culture, in grasping and articulating its contemporary moral/political relevance with special originality and force."
The interesting thing about this passage -- aside from its apt self-portrait of the author -- is the uncertain meaning of that slashmark in the phrase "contemporary moral/political relevance." Does it serve as the equivalent of an equals sign? I doubt that. But it suggests that the relationship is both close and problematic.
We sometimes say that a dog "worries" a bone, meaning he chews it with persistent attention; and in that sense, Divided Mind is a worried book, gnawing with a passion on the "moral/political" problems that go with holding an egalitarian outlook. Scialabba is a man of the left. If you can imagine a blend of Richard Rorty's skeptical pragmatism and Noam Chomsky's geopolitical worldview -- and it's a bit of a stretch to reconcile them, though somehow he does this -- then you have a reasonable sense of Scialabba's own politics. In short, it is the belief that life would be better, both in the United States and elsewhere, with more economic equality, a stronger sense of the common good, and the end of that narcissistic entitlement fostered by the American military-industrial complex.
A certain amount of gloominess goes with holding these principles without believing that History is on the long march to their fulfillment. But there is another complicating element in Divided Mind. It is summed in a passage from the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset's The Revolt of the Masses, from 1930 -- though you might find the same thought formulated by a dozen other conservative thinkers.
"The most radical division it is possible to make of humanity," Ortega y Gasset declares, "is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort toward perfection; mere buoys that float on the waves."
Something in Ortega y Gasset's statement must have struck a chord with Scialabba. He quotes it in two essays. "Is this a valid distinction?" he asks. "Yes, I believe it is...." But the idea bothers him; it stimulates none of the usual self-congratulatory pleasures of snobbery. The division of humanity into two categories -- the noble and "the masses" -- lends itself to anti-democratic sentiments, if not the most violently reactionary sort of politics.
At the very least, it undermines the will to make egalitarian changes. Yet it is also very hard to gainsay the truth of it. How, then, to resolve the tension? Divided Mind is a series of efforts -- provisional, personal, and ultimately unfinished -- to work out an answer.
At this point it bears mentioning that Scialabba's reflections do not follow the protocols of any particular academic discipline. He took his undergraduate degree at Harvard (Class of 1969) and has read his way through a canon or two; but his thinking is not, as the saying now goes, "professionalized." He is a writer who works at Harvard -- but not in the way that statement would normally suggest.
"After spells as a substitute teacher and Welfare Department social worker," he told me recently in an e-mail exchange, "I was, for 25 years, the manager or superintendent of a mid-sized academic office building, which housed Harvard's Center for International Affairs and several regional (East Asian, Russian, Latin American, Middle Eastern, etc) research centers. I gave directions to visitors, scheduled the seminar rooms, got offices painted, carpets installed, shelves built, windows washed, keys made, bills paid. I flirted with graduate students and staff assistants, schmoozed with junior faculty, and saw, heard, overheard, and occasionally got to know a lot of famous and near-famous academics."
As day jobs go, it was conducive to writing. "I had a typewriter and a copy machine," he says, "a good library nearby, and didn't come home every night tired or fretting about office politics." When the "homely mid-sized edifice" was replaced with "a vast, two-building complex housing the political science and history departments as well," the daily grind changed as well: "I'm now part of a large staff, and most of my days are spent staring at a flickering screen."
More pertinent to understanding what drives him as a writer, I think, are certain facts about his background that the reader glimpses in various brief references throughout his essays. The son of working-class Italian-American parents, he was once a member of the ascetic and conservative Roman Catholic group Opus Dei. In adolescence, he thought he might have a religious vocation. The critical intelligence of his critical writings is now unmistakably secular and modernist. He shows no sign of nostalgia for the faith now lost to him. But the extreme dislocation implied in leaving one life for another gives an additional resonance to the title of his collection of essays.
"For several hundred years," he told me, "a small minority of Italian/French/Spanish adolescent peasant or working-class boys -- usually the sternly repressed or (like me) libido-deficient ones -- have been devout, well-behaved, studious. Depending on their abilities and on what sort of priest they're most in contact with, they join a diocese or a religious order. Among the latter, the bright ones become Jesuits; the more modestly gifted or mystically inclined become Franciscans. I grew up among Franciscans and at first planned to become one, but I just couldn't resist going to college -- intellectual concupiscence, I guess."
Instead, he was drawn into Opus Dei -- a group trying, as he puts it, "to make a new kind of religious vocation possible, combining the traditional virtues and spiritual exercises with a professional or business career."
He recalls being "tremendously enthusiastic for the first couple of years, trying very hard, though fruitlessly, to recruit my fellow Catholic undergraduates at Harvard in the late 1960s. It was a strain, being a divine secret agent and trying at the same time to survive academically before the blessed advent of grade inflation. But the reward -- an eternity of happiness in heaven!"
The group permitted him to read secular authors, the better to understand and condemn their heresies.
"Then," he says, "Satan went to work on me. As I studied European history and thought, my conviction gradually grew that the Church had, for the most part, been on the wrong side. Catholic philosophy was wrong; Catholic politics were authoritarian....On one occasion, just after I had read Dostoevsky's parable of the Grand Inquisitor, I was rebuked for my intellectual waywardness by a priestly superior with, I fancied, a striking physical resemblance to the terrifying prelate in Ivan's fable. The hair stood up on the back of my neck."
The departure was painful. The new world he discovered on the other side of his crossing "wasn't in the slightest degree an original discovery," he says. "I simply bought the now-traditional narrative of modernity, hook, line and sinker. I still do, pretty much." But he was not quite ready to plunge without reserve into the counterculture of the time -- sex, drugs, rock and roll.
"I was, to an unusual degree, living in my head rather than my body," he says about the 1970s. "I had emerged from Opus Dei with virtually no friends, a conscious tendency to identify my life course with the trajectory of modernity, and an unconscious need to be a saint, apostle, missionary. And I had inherited from my working-class Italian family no middle-class expectations, ambitions, social skills, ego structures."
Instead, he says, "I read a lot and seethed with indignation at all forms of irrational authority or even conventional respectability. So I didn't take any constructive steps, like becoming a revolutionary or a radical academic.... In those days, it wasn't quite so weird not to be ascending some career ladder."
So he settled into a job that left him with time to think and write. And to deal with the possibility of eternal damnation -- something that can occasionally bedevil one part of the mind, even while the secular and modernist half retains its disbelief.
Somewhere in my study is a hefty folder containing, if not George Scialabba's complete oeuvre, then at least the bulk of it. After several years of reading and admiring his essays, I can testify that Divided Mind is a well-edited selection covering many of his abiding concerns. It ought to be interest to anyone interested in the "fourth genre," as the essay is sometimes called. (The other three -- poetry, drama, and fiction -- get all the glory.)
As noted, the publisher seems to be avoiding crass commercialism (not to mention convenience to the reader) by keeping Divided Mind out of the usual online bookselling venues. You can order it from the address below for $13, however. That price includes shipping and handling.
Imagine that there is a reactionary and theocratic regime somewhere in the world -- one that routinely violates human rights, censors newspapers, harasses labor unionists, and punishes women for “sex outside of marriage” (even when they committed that "crime" by being the victims of rape). Suppose the regime does all this, and more, while enjoying friendly relations with the United States. Not so hard to picture, I'm afraid, realpolitik being what it is. We used to give big fat foreign-aid checks to the Taliban, remember.
But let's go further. Let's imagine that (in spite of everything) there are eloquent and courageous critics of the status quo within the country who fight to get a hearing. They organize, they demonstrate, they publish; they exploit every opportunity available to put forward an alternative vision of their society. The dissidents find that their fellow citizens, especially young people, are interested in what they have to say. They also often find themselves, no surprise, in prison.
Furthermore, let's picture the ranks of that opposition as filled with eloquent and well-read academics and intellectuals -- men and women who turned out, hard questions already formulated, whenever Jurgen Habermas or Antonio Negri showed up to give a lecture.
Courageous, committed, and smart.... What's not to like? Wouldn’t their peers in the United States want to do everything they could to support the dissidents? Wouldn’t there be solidarity groups, and teach-ins, and militant slogans hailing their cause as urgent and just?
Okay, now suppose that all of the above were true -- except for the part about the regime having U.S. support. Suppose, rather, the thugs in charge were full of anti-imperialist sentiment, ready to denounce most of the evil in the world as an American export....
You probably see where this is going.
“In hundreds of conversations I’ve had with Iranian intellectuals, journalists, and human rights activists in recent years, I invariably encounter exasperation,” writes Danny Postel in Reading “Legitimation Crisis” in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism, a recent addition to the Prickly Paradigm pamphlet series distributed by the University of Chicago Press. “Why, they ask, is the American Left so indifferent to the struggle taking place in Iran? Why can’t the Iranian movement get the attention of so-called progressives and solidarity activists here? Why is it mainly neoconservatives who express interest in the Iranian struggle?”
Postel, a senior editor of the online magazine openDemocracy, sees the Iranian situation as a crucial test of whether soi-disant American “progressives” can think outside the logic that treats solidarity as something one extends only to people being hurt by client-states of the U.S. government.
“Of course we should be steadfast in opposition to any U.S. military intervention in Iran,” he writes; “that’s the easy part. But it’s not the end of the discussion. Iran is, as the Iranian anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini puts it, ‘a state at war with itself.’ Progressives everywhere should take sides in that war and actively support the forces of democracy, feminism, pluralism, human rights, and freedom of expression.”
Postel’s title is a nod to Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading “Lolita” in Tehran, of course -- but also to Habermas’s work of social analysis from the book from the early 1970s, Legitimation Crisis. The role that recent European critical theory has played in Iran is a topic revisited by Postel in the booklet’s four sections -- one of them being a reflection on Michel Foucault’s journalistic writings on the Iranian Revolution, and his failure to discuss it after the clerical dictatorship was established. The highlight of the book is an extensive interview with the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo that deserves the widest possible audience. (Fortunately it is also available online.)
Habermas’s concept of “legitimation crisis” refers to periods when, as his translator sums it up, “the ‘organizational principle’ of a society does not permit the resolution of problems that are critical for its continued existence.” That notion may apply to Iran now. The viability of a regime has gone seriously into question when it feels threatened, not just by war clouds on the horizon, but by its own young people’s interest in studying philosophy.
But after reading this short book, I had to wonder if there might be another legitimation crisis under way – one affecting American scholars and activists who see themselves as progressives, who thrill to that oft-repeated demand to "speak truth to power." An unwillingness to extend support to the Iranian opposition puts into question any claim to internationalism, solidarity against oppression, or defense of intellectual freedom.
I sent Danny Postel a few questions by e-mail. Here’s a transcript of the exchange.
Q: You contend that the American left has shown an unseemly reticence about supporting oppositional movements in Iran: human-rights activists, feminists, journalists critical of the theocracy, etc. You say that there has been a double standard at work -- a tendency to express solidarity with movements if, but only if, the regimes they oppose are American client states. Is that something you've done yourself, in the past? If so, what made you question that tendency?
A: I came of age politically in large measure through the Central America solidarity movement of the 1980s. As I say in the book, our solidarity with struggles for justice in places like El Salvador was simultaneously a struggle against U.S. policies in the region -- namely, its support for death squads and murderous regimes. So there was a confluence between what we were against and what we were for: it was all of a piece.
But in a case like Iran, being against U.S. aggression and military intervention -- which we should indeed oppose, and strenuously -- doesn’t necessarily tell us how to think about the internal situation in Iran, or logically lead to a position of solidarity with the kinds of oppositional movements you mention. There’s no direct or obvious link, in other words, between what we’re against and what we’re for with respect to Iran. Most leftists are better at thinking about the first half of that equation, and tend to get confused (or sometimes worse) when it comes to the second half.
So yes, my political consciousness was very much formed within that paradigm, the framework of anti-imperialism. In the 1980s I was definitely less than enthusiastic about the idea, for example, of supporting dissident movements in Eastern Europe. I never sympathized with, and indeed was appalled by, the Soviet empire. Somehow, though, the prospect of standing in solidarity with those resisting it from inside just didn’t stir me.
In retrospect I’m self-critical about that. I now think people like Mary Kaldor (from Helsinki Citizens Assembly) and Joanne Landy (of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy) -- among others on the Left -- were spot on in simultaneously opposing U.S. militarism and supporting democratic dissidents and human rights activists in Eastern Europe. I retroactively stand with them and wish I had been with them at the time.
Realizing that I got it wrong on that front is partly why Iran is important to me. Though I don’t discuss it much in the book, the parallels between Eastern Europe and Iran are manifold -- many of the philosophers and political thinkers who inspired Eastern European dissidents loom large for Iranian dissidents today (Arendt, Popper, Berlin). But the more direct reason for my engagement with Iran is personal: two close Iranian friends, over the course of countless conversations and e-mail exchanges, convinced me that something truly remarkable was happening in Iran, both politically and intellectually. The more I read and explored, the more I was hooked. And I’ve been asked to get involved, for example in the Committee for Academic and Intellectual Freedom of the I nternational Society for Iranian Studies, through which I’ve made more friends. Some of my friends in Iran have been jailed. So my involvement in the issue has become very personal.
My book is an attempt to engage the Left in an argument about Iran. We -- myself included -- have gotten a lot of things wrong. I desperately want us to get Iran right.
Q: So how do you account for the persistence of the blindspot? Is it intellectual laziness? A preference for moral simplicity? At the same time, isn’t the desire to avoid saying anything that could be useful to the neocons at least somewhat understandable?
A: One doesn’t want to generalize: There are different reasons in the cases of different people. I would say that each of the factors you mention plays a part. In some cases it’s one more than the others; in many cases it’s a combination.
Yes, I do think the desire to avoid saying things that could be useful to the neocons is somewhat understandable. But it can also be a cop-out. It was actually more understandable back in 2002-5, when the neocons were endlessly frothing on about their support for democracy and human rights in Iran and it wasn’t as clear to the naked eye how bogus those claims were. Over the last year, however, there’s been a palpable and significant, though largely unnoticed, shift in neocon rhetoric about Iran. They rarely talk about democracy and human rights anymore. They now frame their stance in the terms of Iran as a security threat, with a rotating focus on (depending on the month) Tehran’s nuclear program, its support for Hezbollah, or its role in Iraq. And they’ve ratcheted up the threatening rhetoric, many of them explicitly calling for a military attack.
That puts them at direct odds with the democratic dissidents and human rights activists in Iran, who are unequivocally opposed to any U.S. attack on their country. With the outbreak of the Israel/Hezbollah/Lebanon war in July-August, several neocons came out of the closet, if you will, as supporters of a war on Iran, calling, in the pages of The Weekly Standard and elsewhere, for the bombing to begin. Since that time there’s been virtual silence from the neocons about democracy and human rights in Iran. How can they claim to support either, when democratic dissidents and human rights activists in Iran stand diametrically opposed to them on the question of attacking Iran?
That lie is up. What is now blindingly clear to the naked eye, for anyone who cares to look, is that the neocon agenda vis-à-vis Iran has never been about democracy or human rights. What the neocons want in Tehran is a pro-U.S. and pro-Israeli regime; whether it’s a democratic one or not is an entirely secondary matter to them. And Iranian dissidents know this, which is why they want nothing to do with the neocons. Note that the funds the State Department earmarked last year for democracy promotion in Iran met with a resounding thud among dissidents, who see right through the neocons and their agenda.
This is not only a critique of the neocons, though; it’s also a challenge to those on the Left who have bought into the neocons’ Big Lie about being the bosom buddies of Iran’s dissidents. Due to intellectual laziness, a preference for moral simplicity, existential bad faith, or some combination thereof, lots of leftists have opted out of even expressing moral support, let alone standing in active solidarity with, Iranian dissidents, often on the specious grounds that the latter are on the CIA’s payroll or are cozy with the neocons. Utter and complete tripe. Perhaps, as I say, understandable in the past, when it wasn’t as transparent what empty hogwash the neocons’ posturing was. But now that the neocons’ real cards are on the table and their pretense of solidarity with Iranian dissidents has been shattered, the Left can no longer use the neocons as an avoidance mechanism.
Leftists should be arguing not that we might say things that the neocons could put to nefarious ends but, on the contrary, that neocon pronouncements about Iran are fraudulent and toxic. The neocons are hardly in a position to employ anyone’s arguments about human rights and democracy in Iran when they themselves have forfeited that turf. Indeed it’s not the neocons but rather liberals and leftists opposed to attacking Iran who turn out to be on the same page with Iranian dissidents on this Mother of All Issues. It is we who stand in solidarity with Iranian human rights activists and student protesters and dissident intellectuals, not the Bush administration or the American Enterprise Institute.
I intend this point to be both disabusing, on the negative side, and a call to arms, on the negation of the negation side, if you will: Iranian dissidents are actively seeking the support of global civil society for their struggle. Not the support of the Pentagon or the neocons or foreign governments, but of writers, intellectuals, and human rights activists. We ignore their message at both their peril and our own.
Q: Intellectual life in Iran sounds much livelier than one would expect under a theocracy -- if also no less precarious. If you could ensure that every American academic knew about at least one or two of the serious debates taking place there, what would they be? If there were a Tehran Review of Books (maybe there is one?) what would be the recent headlines?
A: The Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo speaks poignantly to this question in our dialogue. Citing Sartre’s line, “We were never more free than under the German occupation,” Jahanbegloo observes: “By this Sartre understands that each gesture had the weight of a commitment during the Vichy period in France. I always repeat this phrase in relation to Iran. It sounds very paradoxical, but ‘We have never been more free than under the Islamic Republic’. By this I mean that the day Iran is democratic, Iranian intellectuals will put less effort into struggling for the idea of democracy and for liberal values.”
Habermas was struck by this on his visit to Iran in 2002. A young Iranian political scientist told him that, despite the many constraints and problems in Iran there is, as Habermas paraphrased him, “at least a political public realm with passionate debates.” There really is that palpable sense of vitality in Iranian intellectual life, a feeling that debates about democracy and secularism are deeply consequential in a way that they aren’t here. And yes, the element of precariousness looms large. In a dark irony, within weeks of Jahanbegloo making that observation, he was arrested and spent four months behind bars .
Iranian intellectuals are constantly navigating the Islamic Republic’s red lines: magazines and journals are routinely shut down; scholars and journalists are in and out of prison -- or worse. But as Jahanbegloo’s Sartrean observation suggests, that precariousness plays a huge role in giving Iranian intellectual life its vibrancy and sense of urgency.
There is, as it happens, something like a Tehran Review of Books — it’s called Jahan-e-ketab, which would translate World of Books. And there’s an intellectual journal called Goft-o-gu ( Dialogue). And fancy this: Iran’s leading reformist newspaper, Shargh, had on its staff (until the government banned it in September) a full-time “Theoretical Editor.” Imagine an American newspaper -- not a quarterly journal or a monthly or weekly magazine, but a mass-circulation daily newspaper -- having a “theoretical” section! That alone speaks volumes about Iranian intellectual culture.
What you find in the pages of Jahan-e-ketab and Goft-o-gu and the late Shargh and a philosophical journal like Kiyan, before it too was banned in 2001, are debates about things like modernity ( tajadod in Persian, a huge theme in Iran) and secularism; liberalism and democratic theory; feminism and human rights; universalism and value pluralism. A recent issue of Goft-o-gu, for example, featured an essay on Foucault’s concept of “governmentality,” and another arguing against the tendency to blame outsiders for Iran’s problems (what the historian Ervand Abrahamian once cleverly called “The Paranoid Style in Iranian Politics”). There are also intense discussions going on among religious intellectuals about things like the separation of religion and the state; whether Islam can be synthesized with universal human rights; and the proper place of faith in public life.
If you were to compare the tables of contents of Iran’s leading journals of critical thought with their counterparts in the West, the similarities would be striking, particularly in terms of the thinkers around whom the debates tend to revolve: Kant (of whose writings there have been more translations into Persian than into any other language over the last decade), Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer, Habermas, Arendt, Popper, Isaiah Berlin. Interestingly, these ideas often serve as the nodal points for secular and religious debates alike. Akbar Ganji, one of Iran’s leading dissidents, is currently abroad assembling a book of conversations he’s conducting with the likes of Habermas, Richard Rorty, Alasdair MacIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, Charles Taylor, Ronald Dworkin, Amartya Sen, Robert Bellah, and Nancy Fraser, among others. There you have it.
Q: You note that the oppositional movements in Iran are emphatically not asking for support from the U.S. government -- let alone military action. At the same time, it sounds as if some intellectuals and activists there, finding no solidarity among their peers on the left abroad, end up warming somewhat to the American neoconservatives, who at least pay attention to them. How is that contradiction playing itself out?
A: The Iranian journalist Afshin Molavi speaks to this when he observes : “I know far too many Iranian leftists who have gone neo-con as a result of their feeling of abandonment by the American and European left. I wish they had not gone that route.”
But as I said earlier, things have changed on this front. Afshin wrote those lines in June 2005. That was much more the case then than it is now. The neocons have thoroughly squandered any sympathetic vibration they might have enjoyed with Iranian dissidents in the past. Their adoption of a belligerent and bellicose stance toward Iran has severed any pretense of standing in solidarity with progressive forces in Iran. Indeed that bellicosity has served to make the situation for Iranian dissidents and human rights activists dramatically more perilous.
Every threatening pronouncement from Washington strengthens the hand of the most reactionary and repressive forces in Iran and puts the opposition in ever more dire straits. The irony is that Ahmadinejad is actually on the defensive at home, facing growing disenchantment — but, as Ali Ansari and many others have pointed out, the hawks in Washington are tossing him a lifeline. The neocons are Ahmadinejad’s best friends, and are doing massive damage to the cause of democracy and human rights in Iran.
For these reasons, sympathy for the neocons among Iranian dissidents is nil. But that doesn’t translate into an automatic love fest with the western Left. Progressives in the west have to make an effort to connect up with our Iranian counterparts, to enter into a dialogue with them.
Q: Is there anything specific that oppositional intellectuals in Iran need now, in particular, from any Americans who are in solidarity with them?
A: The number one thing we can -- and must -- do here is to prevent the U.S. government from taking any military action against Iran. That is the Mother of All Issues right now. It’s the sine qua non for any solidarity with dissident intellectuals and human rights activists; the minute the first bomb is dropped the democratic struggle in Iran will be derailed for the foreseeable future, maybe for decades. That message has to be articulated as emphatically as possible over and over until Bush and Cheney leave office.
I’ve long believed a U.S. military attack on Iran to be highly unlikely, and I still think the chances are against it -- but the signals emanating from Washington over the last several weeks have me thoroughly worried. Let’s just say we should prepare for the worst and be on offense rather than defense. We can't wait until it’s too late. There’s a preponderance of arguments against military action on Iran. In fact it’s disturbing that it’s even being discussed. But among the myriad arguments one can offer -- the most obvious being the humanitarian and geopolitical catastrophe it would unquestionably produce -- one of the most important, it seems to me, is that the democratic struggle in Iran would be dismantled by it.
It’s already in serious peril just by virtue of the threatening storm currently gathering momentum in Washington. This is the Present Danger, if you will: even if the current maneuvering is actually posturing calculated to bulldoze Tehran, which many suspect it to be (and let’s hope they’re right), it’s an extremely hazardous game with potentially cataclysmic consequences and has to be brought to an end immediately.
It would be highly useful for antiwar activists in the west to know what democratic dissidents, human rights activists, women’s rights activists, and liberal intellectuals in Iran have to say on the issue of a US attack on their country. Most antiwar activists in the west would be hard pressed to even name an Iranian dissident, let alone rehearse their arguments. I’d like to see that change.
Antiwar activists and progressive intellectuals in the west should know, and be prepared to say extemporaneously in public debate, what the likes of Shirin Ebadi , Akbar Ganji , Emadeddin Baghi , Abdollah Momeni , and Ramin Jahanbegloo think — most pressingly, what they think of a US military attack on Iran, but also what they think about the human rights situation in Iran, the nature of the Islamic Republic, and what members of global civil society can do to support them. Indeed we should be in conversation with them, and with many other Iranian progressives — writing articles about them, inviting them to speak at our universities, learning as much as we can about them. To use something of an old-fashioned formulation, we should make their struggle ours.