14 September 2006

American Liberals as an Endangered Species

Here are the final sentences from a pointed essay by historian Tony Judt entitled "Bush’s Useful Idiots" from The London Review of Books.

"We don’t expect right-wingers to care very much about the health of a republic, particularly when they are assiduously engaged in the unilateral promotion of empire. And the ideological left, while occasionally adept at analysing the shortcomings of a liberal republic, is typically not much interested in defending it.

It is the liberals, then, who count. They are, as it might be, the canaries in the sulphurous mineshaft of modern democracy. The alacrity with which many of America’s most prominent liberals have censored themselves in the name of the War on Terror, the enthusiasm with which they have invented ideological and moral cover for war and war crimes and proffered that cover to their political enemies: all this is a bad sign. Liberal intellectuals used to be distinguished precisely by their efforts to think for themselves, rather than in the service of others. Intellectuals should not be smugly theorising endless war, much less confidently promoting and excusing it. They should be engaged in disturbing the peace – their own above all."


Blogger JoeCollins said...

While I disagree with many of the assumptions scattered throughout this piece, I am most perplexed by Judt's selective conflation of classical liberalism and what I would call the "social democratic" left. At times he uses the term in a manner which is seems to refer to classical liberalism, and at other times he seems to write about the ideal Democratic party member.

Judt writes, "In domestic politics liberals once believed in the provision of welfare, good government and social justice. In foreign affairs they had a longstanding commitment to international law, negotiation, and the importance of moral example."

That to me sounds like a social democrat, most aptly represented by the Democratic party. A liberal need not be a social democrat, nor vice versa. Judt's ideal liberal is not nearly as centrist as he thinks.

In the very next paragraph he assigns some blame to Bill Clinton for the deterioration of liberalism. Huh? Without dissecting the defintions of "welfare" and "social justice", how did Clinton fail liberalism?

Why have American liberals acquiesced in President Bush’s catastrophic foreign policy? Why have they so little to say about Iraq, about Lebanon, or about reports of a planned attack on Iran?
"Acquiesced"? Damn near every American has discernable opinions about Bush and his policies, and I've seen, heard, and read vociferous opposition to all of those things. Since when is agreeing with the Republicans (or disagreeing with Judt) a sign of acquiescence?

A relatively minor point, but Judt has clearly demonstrated that he has no idea what a neo-conservative is. Judt spends the majority of the piece splitting non-existent hairs about who real liberals are and where they might have gone, but pulls out the old neo-con boogie man without so much as a hint that the Republican/right folks have our own imperfect coalitions. Judt's portrayal of the Right is comically stupid.

"Liberal intellectuals used to be distinguished precisely by their efforts to think for themselves, rather than in the service of others. Intellectuals should not be smugly theorising endless war, much less confidently promoting and excusing it."

Again, Judt is not only deciding who is a good liberal, but deciding who is thinking for him/herself and who is a patsy.

It reminds me of the Monty Python "Life of Brian" scene: "We are all individuals! --- (I'm not)"

15 September, 2006 17:20  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


Thanks for the comments. As ususal you have some smart objecctions. Judt, I think would call "classical liberals" what they usually are, namely libertarians; Clinton was politically a creation of the Democratic Leadership Council which is an explicit move away from anything resembling liberalism in the post-war Democratic Party sense (he is, I htink, as much a communitarian as anything, but probably opportunist is the best description - as with Hilary too!). By ideological left Judt means maxists and I suspect he would try to locate liberalism close to social democcracy in the European sense. But of course, since the US never had a strong social demcoratic movement the Democratci Party from, say Roosevelt through Johnson, is a cloase as you get.

15 September, 2006 20:48  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if the lack of critique that Judt identifies has anything to do with the range of available media outlets. The sharpest political commentary seems increasingly to come from blogs (present company included)!
That may be why the "liberal" Bill Clinton is courting the friendship of the premier left leaning bloggers according to a piece in The Guardian "Left builds power base in the blogosphere." Clinton it seems is winning their hearts, and I imagine he hopes words, with among other things flattery and "soul food!"

16 September, 2006 08:01  

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