Hatchet Man’s Heresy Hunt…

Hatchet Man’s Heresy Hunt…

New York City


New York City

I wish I could say I was surprised that The Nation assigned a hatchet man to trash my book The Intellectuals and the Flag: the ever on-message Daniel Lazare, who’s sputtered against my work for years [“Pledging Allegiance,” March 20]. On his Long March to expose apostasy and dig up Fragments of the True Left, no scruple impedes Lazare.

Because Lazare is perhaps The Nation‘s back of the book’s main go-to guy for heresy hunts, it’s worth a fair number of words to see how shoddy his work is. His method is part fabrication, part demonology, part projection. Even when he tenders an idea, he warps it with his steel-trap either-or mind. Thus, when he makes the reasonable point that one could respond to the attacks of September 11 “as a New Yorker, as a human being, as a secularist or as an anti-imperialist”–that is, one didn’t have to respond as an American, perish the thought–he overlooks the many passages in my title essay where I do respond precisely as a New Yorker, a human being and, in fact, as an anti-imperialist, as well as an American. Lazare thinks I had to choose. That’s his thuggish mind, not mine.

Lazare is a champion cherry-picker–he should apply for a job in Dick Cheney’s office. In his many paragraphs of rant against what he takes to be my view of patriotism, there appear exactly two quotations from my book. Since Lazare is too busy to quote me, I refer the interested reader to a sentence in which, truth be told, I anticipate the likes of Lazare: “Viewing the ongoing politics of the Americans as contemptibly shallow and compromised, the demonological attitude naturally rules out patriotic attachment to those very Americans.” Lazare illustrates the same point when he imputes to me the view that “responding as an American meant seeing 9/11 in essentially nationalist terms as a case of turbanned foreigners visiting evil on an innocent United States.” Every claim that he puts in my mouth in this sentence is false–and refuted in the book.

Lazare is so contemptuous of the contrast I draw between patriotism and nationalism that he can’t be troubled to note it. So I end up on his anathema list along, I suppose, with the fellow who said, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it”–Mark Twain, who was also, I believe, a human being, a secularist and an anti-imperialist, as am I, though I may not have recited the loyalty oath prescribed by Inquisitor Lazare.

Most loathsomely, Lazare concocts the impression that I offer “a halfhearted defense of the war in Iraq,” and that my “thesis” is “that the war was a well-intentioned, if badly executed, attempt to rid the world of a noxious tyrant.” This is where tendentiousness rounds the corner and heads for dementia. Here is how Lazare works: He quotes exactly nothing from my book that says such a thing. There is nothing: I wrote against the war, spoke against it in many venues, marched against it, vigiled against it. Here is one sentence from the book: “By the time George W. Bush declared war without end against an ‘axis of evil’…I felt again the old anger and shame at being attached to a nation–my nation–ruled by runaway bullies, indifferent to principle, playing fast and loose with the truth, their lives manifesting supreme loyalty to private (though government-slathered) interests yet quick to lecture dissenters about the merits of patriotism.” On the next page, I criticize the Democrats for ducking the issue in 2002.

While Lazare was busy foraging for an essay of mine in Mother Jones to trash, he might have found many in which I argued against the war. Instead, he offers this: “Citing his fellow Dissent-nik Paul Berman, Gitlin bravely inveighs against Islamic fundamentalism as ‘a poisonous, nihilist, totalitarian creed allied, in its ideological DNA, to fascism and communism.’ But he neglects to explain why, if Islamic fundamentalism and Soviet Communism are ideological brothers, they would fight a war to the death in Afghanistan.”

But the very next sentence after the one Lazare cites reads: “Unlike him [Berman], I concluded that its [Islamism’s] roots are principally non-Western and that the wrong interventions–as against Iraq’s Ba’athist tyranny–are likely to backfire.” By the way, by Lazare’s illogic, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany could not have gone to war with each other; nor the Soviet Union and China; nor Saddam’s Iraq and Khomeini’s Iran.

Lazare is a professional subject-changer and barrel-bottom scraper. I criticize the likes of Noam Chomsky and Edward Said for finding nothing good to say about US interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, whereupon Lazare objects that Chomsky is a “critical patriot” and Said was an “old-fashioned liberal.” So? I write that totalist ideologies proved murderous, and Lazare, in his fourth-grade gotcha! manner, objects that democracy, socialism and science are also “totalist” (his scare quotes)–yet also liberating. QED! But of course democracy and science are not at all totalist, for they make room for dissent–as would socialism too if it were democratic.

Lazare thinks I wrote in Mother Jones against “Blaming America First” because I was “incensed” that my friend Katha Pollitt had written against flying the flag, and that I implied that Pollitt and her co-thinkers derived pleasure from the suffering around them. In truth, I was not writing about Katha, nor was I incensed about her views–in fact, we appeared together, amicably, arguing against an Iraq war on Democracy Now!, though we did disagree on some particulars. I was indeed incensed by Chomsky, who on the day of the mass murder was too busy denouncing Bill Clinton’s 1998 attack on Sudan to express more than a perfunctory word about the Americans (and others) pulverized. Lazare then says I attacked Chomsky and Said as “foolish or disloyal.” In fact, I attacked them as foolish, not disloyal. It is Lazare who is obsessed with loyalty–to what shimmering idea he does not get around to speaking.

But Lazare, in full jihad mode, flies past my observation, in the same Mother Jones piece, that “the American flag sprouted in the days after September 11, for many of us, as a badge of belonging, not a call to shed innocent blood.” He extracts what he detests in one Mother Jones piece and doesn’t mention my other Mother Jones work at all, including my polemic against the 2002 Bush National Security Statement.

Meanwhile, one-third of the pages of my book concern David Riesman, C. Wright Mills and Irving Howe, intellectuals who in their work aspired to comprehensiveness, comprehensibility and political use. Another one-third make arguments about postmodernism, cultural studies and university values. Lazare is too busy fulminating against my (shall we say) disloyalty even to pay any of this any mind. A mind like an ice pick cannot be bothered.


New York City

Until I read Daniel Lazare’s review of Todd Gitlin’s The Intellectuals and the Flag, I foolishly believed that Gitlin was an opponent of the war in Iraq. Maybe I believed this because Gitlin argued in a September 2002 New York Times op-ed article that “liberals should oppose this administration’s push toward war in Iraq.” Or maybe I believed it because, in a talk he gave at NYU in November 2002, he said that war in Iraq was likely to bring about “carnage and a boost to terror,” that “wars must be a matter of last resort” and that despite the “monstrous tyranny of Saddam Hussein, the use of force for ‘regime change’ is not proportionate, nor is it justified.” Or maybe I believed it because in the title essay of the book reviewed by Lazare, Gitlin says that Bush and his entourage “bamboozled the public,” that they were “lying,” “cherry-picking the evidence,” “covering up the counter-evidence” and “playing the bully’s game of triumph of the will.” Until I read Lazare’s review, I had no idea that all of this added up, as Lazare puts it, to a “half-hearted defense of the war in Iraq.” That Gitlin is very sly! Thank goodness we have sharp-eyed and intellectually scrupulous critics like Lazare to expose him.


Chevy Chase, Md.

Any future historian seeking a prime example of idiocy on the American left will have to look no further than Daniel Lazare’s tirade against Todd Gitlin’s latest book. Here she will find Gitlin, a consistent and eloquent opponent of the Iraq War, described as a member of the “foreign policy establishment” and an ally of “authoritarianism.” Here she will find Lazare mocking the very idea that left-wing patriotism can be anything other than a surrender to jingoism–although such worthies as Frederick Douglass, Eugene Debs and Martin Luther King Jr. invoked American ideals to support their demands. And here she will find evidence that certain radicals gain more satisfaction from hating a prominent progressive like Gitlin than in figuring out how to rescue the positive aspects of national traditions from the right-wing government that speaks in their name. The Intellectuals and the Flag is a splendid contribution to the revival of a credible left that might actually play a part in changing our country. Lazare’s review is a mélange of falsehoods and baseless rants that reminded me of the kind of hack jobs once performed by Stalinist writers like Mike Gold and V.J. Jerome. It should have no place in the most popular weekly on the current American left.



New York City

Todd Gitlin has written a long, furious blast of a letter, so I’ll be as clear and calm as I can in reply. It is beyond me why Gitlin characterizes my point about the importance of perspective as “thuggish.” I think it’s obvious: The “optic” one chooses to view a particular event helps determine one’s perception, analysis and response. In Gitlin’s case, choosing to view 9/11 through patriotic lenses fairly insured that he’d join in the mood of belligerent nationalism that was sweeping the country and that he’d be incensed at those who refused to do likewise. The astonishing charge of “schadenfreude” that he hurled at certain unnamed leftists in his notorious Mother Jones article a few months later was the inevitable upshot. Not even Bush or Cheney went this far. Yet Gitlin not only refuses to apologize but is now furious that I would even bring it up.

Gitlin writes that “Lazare is so contemptuous of the contrast I draw between patriotism and nationalism that he can’t be troubled to note it.” But in fact I quoted him at length on the subject of “democratic patriotism.” I just didn’t find his comments very convincing. Gitlin describes me as loathsome, tendentious and demented for suggesting that the arguments in The Intellectuals and the Flag add up to “a halfhearted defense” of the Iraq War and adds that I quoted “exactly nothing from my book that says such a thing.” But while noting his statement that the Bush Administration’s reasons for going to war were “shabby, sloppy and evasive,” I also quoted him as saying that “the other powers’ approach” to the problem of Saddam was deficient and that removing Saddam was not without its “virtues.” Despite Bush’s shortcomings, in other words, Gitlin managed to find something good to say about the invasion’s chief goal while arguing that no one else was able to come up with anything better. I think “a halfhearted defense” in this context is entirely accurate.

Although I didn’t say so in my review, I might point out that Gitlin went on in his book to describe the invasion not as wrong, but as merely “botched”–which suggests that, had it been properly executed, he might very well have been in support. I might also point out that he set off a round of booing at the 2003 Socialist Scholars Conference when, on the eve of the invasion, he told the assembled leftists to brace themselves because the outcome might turn out to be better than they were expecting. Needless to say, he was wrong. Gitlin no doubt thought he was being very sage in criticizing not only Bush but leftists who, he thought, were soft on Saddam. But the charge was groundless and only succeeded in infuriating the war’s opponents.

Gitlin accuses me of failing to quote the distinction he draws between Paul Berman’s thesis that Islamic fundamentalism, communism and fascism are all brothers under the skin and his own position that Islamic fundamentalism’s “roots are principally non-Western and that the wrong interventions–as against Iraq’s Ba’athist tyranny–are likely to backfire.” I didn’t quote it, because I thought it was a minor qualification that added little to the overall discussion. But maybe I should have, if only because it exemplifies so much of what is wrong with his writing. After all, what does the struggle against Islamic fundamentalism have to do with overthrowing a Baathist regime that was predominantly secular and nationalist? Not only is the statement that “wrong interventions…are likely to backfire” a tautology (can wrong interventions do anything but backfire?) but it is also a purely pragmatic argument that, by limiting itself to the likely consequences of such actions, avoids any question as to their underlying morality. The point is not whether intervention would work (whatever “work” means in this context) but whether it would be right or wrong in the first place.

A few other points: Gitlin says I am wrong to argue that if fundamentalism and Soviet Communism were brothers under the skin, it would beg the question of why they “would fight a war to the death in Afghanistan.” He replies that ideological brothers often go to war with one another and cites Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II as an example. But this statement leaves me puzzled. Is he saying that the Nazis and Soviets were ideological brothers as well? If so, he should be aware that the only people who maintained this position at the time were a few isolationists calling for a plague on both their houses and quietly hoping that Hitler would be left alone to finish the job against Stalin. Most others, including nearly everyone on the left, recognized that despite certain superficial similarities at the top, the war between Germany and Russia was between fundamentally antagonistic social systems. If Gitlin disagrees, perhaps he should explain why.

Finally, I’m glad that Gitlin and Pollitt are friends, but I still find his comments about Noam Chomsky to be despicable. I don’t know Chomsky and actually disagree with a fair amount of what he has to say. Yet I’m absolutely confident that he was as appalled and outraged at the slaughter of the innocents on 9/11 as everyone else. If he brought up Sudan, it was only to make the vital point that while the victims were innocent the US government was not, and that Americans should demand that it come clean about its many unsavory activities in the Third World. If more dissidents had succeeded in making themselves heard in those days, we would be a lot better off now. But they were quickly silenced by people yelling “schadenfreude” and other terms of abuse, and so the war effort continued unimpeded.

Hatchet man…fabrication…loathsome: Gitlin insists that patriotism is an ideology of tolerance but grows angry and abusive when confronted with someone who disagrees. What’s wrong with this picture?

Regarding Brian Morton and Michael Kazin, it’s clear that Gitlin has been e-mailing his Dissent colleagues to get them to respond. I wonder what left-wing stalwarts on the editorial board we’ll be hearing from next–Paul Berman? Martin Peretz? Perhaps Mitchell Cohen will write in to explain why he supports the war, while his co-editor Michael Walzer clears up the mysteries of his own anti-antiwar position. The 2002 Times op-ed article Morton cites was actually a hack job that attacked “intellectuals and activists on the far left” who, according to Gitlin, “could not be troubled much with compassion or defense.” Once again, he portrays leftists as anti-American ideologues unmoved by 3,000 deaths, which is undoubtedly why the Times chose to run that absurd piece. Kazin’s letter is even worse–an obnoxious, bullying screed that insists we all acknowledge Gitlin as “a consistent and eloquent opponent” of the war merely because Kazin says so. As for the charge of Stalinism, I’ve been the most fervent of anti-Stalinists ever since joining a Trotskyist cell in Madison, Wisconsin, at age 20 (a long, long time ago, unfortunately). In neolib-speak, “Stalinist” seems to be a general term of abuse for anyone daring to challenge the left-wing credentials of the various stuffed shirts who write for Dissent. Wherever he is, I’m sure that Uncle Joe is enjoying the compliment.


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