ISRAELI PEACENIKS

New York City

In her otherwise fine essay “The Country Doctor” [Jan. 24], Amy Wilentz makes this basic observation, as if it’s surprising or shocking: “Scratch an Israeli peacenik, in other words, and you will very often find a Zionist; blow up a bus or a discotheque or a pizza parlor filled with Israelis, and you will find that every single Israeli is, to some degree, a Zionist.”

She’s referred to Amos Oz’s consistent analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a conflict of rights, yet seems not to understand it. Most Israeli peaceniks, just like most Israelis, are “Zionists.” They know that Israel was established to be, and still largely serves as, a refuge for a small, often victimized people. They believe in a Jewish state–one that is culturally, but not theologically, Jewish and respects minority rights–alongside a Palestinian-Arab state, as a pragmatic accommodation for the two warring peoples. This is a progressive Zionist position. Why juxtapose “peacenik” and “Zionist” as if they are opposites?

RALPH SELIGER, editor
Israeli Horizons, Meretz USA


WILENTZ REPLIES

Los Angeles

Ralph Seliger assumes that everyone in the world understands that an Israeli peacenik is also almost indubitably a Zionist. While most Jews and certainly all Israelis know this–in fact, it’s virtually reflexive, almost axiomatic–not all Americans or Europeans know it. Some, indeed, conflate “peacenik” (even Israeli peacenik) with “leftist,” and “leftist” with “anti-Zionist”–a flaw in international understanding that Amos Oz often uses his position to correct. I too was hoping to counter this ill-informed perception.

AMY WILENTZ


THE COURT HISTORIAN

Charlottetown, PEI, Canada

Well, at 96 and 87 respectively, as Eric Alterman puts it [“The Liberal Media,” Dec. 27], John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. deserve respect. It was around 1950 that I became upset when Carey McWilliams wrote in The Nation that Arthur spoke the language of McCarthy with a Harvard accent. Fond of McWilliams and a family friend of the Schlesingers, I wrote McWilliams a sharp rebuke, and terminated (victim of my own terror of contamination) my budding relationship with The Nation. McWilliams was a mild giant, a fine editor at a time of tribulation, what with the Red Scare and accusations that a staff member, Del Vayo, an exiled Spanish Republican, was a Communist. The Nation offices, then way downtown on Vesey Street, felt beleaguered.

What ticked off McWilliams was the beginnings of the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), conceived by Schlesinger and others as a way to maintain center-left New Deal influence by purging Reds from progressive ranks. A bad time, described by Victor Navasky in his book Naming Names. I recall American Veterans Committee meetings extending to 2 am with wrangling among factions over “points of order”and “points of information.” Was I right in siding with Schlesinger against McWilliams? I doubt it. Even Schlesinger and Galbraith made mistakes, as Alterman notes. ADA, some labor unions and others curtailed the Bill of Rights and human rights in order to save them (as did President Truman with his loyalty program). This can be perceived as a Leszek Kolakowski dilemma, in which a principle is threatened with self-destruction from excess consistency; or as cowardice, or outflanking the opposition.

In mulling all this over, it occurs to me that the present is not unlike the period following World War II. I now doubt that the Red Scare made any more sense than the present “war on terrorism.” In both instances, 1945 and the end of the twentieth century, the United States, in a position of unrivaled power, became frightened of insignificant enemies, leading to a displacement of resources that favored the military-industrial-intelligence-university complex; and invasions of constitutional rights. Yes, I am nostalgic for the vigorous, disorderly dialogue of the 1930s, Reds included, when we rallied around real issues like the right to organize. The recent Kerry campaign may well be the unhappy legacy of the ADA and like-minded failings of conscience and virtue.

JAMES MUNVES


New York City

I have no quarrel with Eric Alterman’s critique of Peter Beinart’s call for a new cold war [“The Liberal Media,” Jan. 10/17], although his discussion of the need for a Democratic fighting faith takes pretty much the same stance as Beinart but from a liberal cold war perspective. This perspective also surfaced in his previous column [Dec. 27], where Alterman’s appreciation of the tough-minded realism of Arthur Schlesinger is overly selective.

Schlesinger was for the most part critical of US policy only when the Democrats were out of power. Much of his well-written history is pure hagiography. In 1950 he was an early supporter of intervention in Southeast Asia. He called for support of the French puppet Bao Dai, and he was certain “American reform would accompany military funds” and “American technical missions [could] easily be organized to combat the social problems.” Is this nonideological, tough-minded realism?

During the McCarthy era, when some professors refused to answer investigating committees’ questions, Schlesinger, defending academic freedom while denouncing its practitioners, supported the right to “loathsome ideas” and referred to the professors as “contemptible individuals” and “wretched nonentities” who had lived “a political lie” in the service of a “foreign nation and of a totalitarian conspiracy.”

When Nation editor Carey McWilliams, Yale Law Review editor Thomas Emerson and poet Stringfellow Barr called for a conference on the attack on civil liberties, Schlesinger called them “Typhoid Marys of the left bearing the germs of infection, even if not suffering obviously from the diseases.” Such “comrades of the pro-Communist left” had no credibility to call for such a conference. (McWilliams responded that Schlesinger “spoke the language of McCarthyism with a Harvard accent.”) Schlesinger also called Victor Navasky’s Naming Names a “tricky,” “disingenuous” apology for Stalinism. As the Hollywood Ten were appealing their convictions for refusing to answer investigators’ questions, Schlesinger wrote that Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson and Alvah Bessie had “refused to own up to their political beliefs before a Committee of Congress.”

Alterman waxes eloquent about the Milan Conference sponsored by the Committee for Cultural Freedom, funded by the CIA. Dwight Macdonald reviewed the conference for Encounter, also funded by the CIA, and saw it as a boring defense of Western anti-Communism. The editors demanded drastic revisions and ultimately superseded his piece with one by the Dickensian-named Edward Shills praising the conference. Both Schlesinger and Shills defended the covert CIA support. This was indeed a part of their “fighting faith.”

In Alterman’s romanticization of the period he writes as if he is unaware of the darker side of this cold war history, when the threat to civil liberties was constant and the liberal opposition a frail reed. This may simply be due to the current historical amnesia. Or, it may be a matter of generational historical ignorance. In either case it is a distorted picture.

MICHAEL WRESZIN


ALTERMAN REPLIES

New York City

I thank James Munves for his reminiscences. Michael Wreszin’s letter is profoundly confused. He accuses me of being “overly selective” in my “appreciation of the tough-minded realism of Arthur Schlesinger” and then goes on to lay out a series of events in which he has differences with the positions Schlesinger took at the time. Wreszin would be on firmer ground if he were arguing with the particulars of anything I actually wrote. The two columns to which he refers were indeed “selective” in that they discussed none of the events in Schlesinger’s career. In fact, they discussed Schlesinger in only a few paragraphs of one column and mentioned him only four times in the course of the 2,600-word total for two columns. The references add up to far fewer words than Wreszin takes to argue with me. Perhaps he has a case in some of his particulars, perhaps not. (I certainly disagree with Schlesinger’s assessment of Naming Names.)

Nevertheless, I took no position on the substance of Schlesinger’s positions over the course of his sixty years in politics except to note that he and John Kenneth Galbraith “made their share of mistakes, political and intellectual. But they were not the most costly kind, thanks to an unyielding commitment of both the economist and the historian to battling the effects of extremism of all stripes.” Wreszin pretends to read in this an endorsement of all of Schlesinger’s decisions. His dishonesty in doing so is patent in his characterization of my work when he writes, “Alterman waxes eloquent about the Milan Conference sponsored by the Committee for Cultural Freedom, funded by the CIA.” Here is my reference to the conference in its entirety: “Mattson’s invaluable new study, When America Was Great: The Fighting Faith of Postwar Liberalism, quotes Galbraith at a Congress of Cultural Freedom gathering in Milan in 1955, attacking intellectuals who treat their ideological constructs as reality.” Obviously, I did not “wax eloquent.” I did not “wax” at all. I merely identified the location of Galbraith’s remarks, quoting the original source. Is this somehow objectionable?

The cold war was a far more complex matter than can be appreciated in the course of a polemical letter that offers no context or competing arguments for its angry indictments. I have neither the time nor the space to be drawn into the complicated particulars of the anecdotes that Wreszin seems to believe prove his point. This is not due to “historical amnesia.” I assure him that I am fully “aware” of the “darker side of…cold war history.” Indeed, I earned my PhD in the subject. I simply see that history differently from Wreszin.

Nothing in his letter inspires me to wish to reconsider my view that both Galbraith and Schlesinger served their nation and their ideals quite honorably during the course of their careers. It is no crime that Wreszin, too, has been “selective” in his choices of anecdotes and the manner in which he portrays them. Selectivity is unavoidable for both the historian and the journalist. He would be a better polemicist, however, if he understood as much.

ERIC ALTERMAN