We Can’t All Live in Interesting Times

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There’s another thread to the politics of moral histrionism, which I mentioned in my earlier post, which I want to take up. I read the Israeli press as closely as I can. And yesterday morning I was browsing the Times of Israel, an English language site, and found this article by Jeffrey Herf, a historian at the University of Maryland. (They have what I think is basically an open blogging forum, where individuals are selected to be able post but after that post at will without editorial vetting. They got in trouble when a contributor posted a column titled “When Genocide is Permissible” (removed after the fact) during the Gaza War. In any case, this is not meant as a criticism of the publication. We once had a similar set up.) The somewhat grand title of Herf’s article is “Menendez and the Demise of Liberalism.” And it caught my eye both because of the title and because it spurred a comic echo of memories from more than a decade ago.

I told you recently that J.J. Goldberg is one of the people I read most closely on Israel-Palestine issues. About a dozen years ago he got in touch with me and gave me an assignment to cover a conference put on by Social Democrats, USA, what was essentially the right wing of the always slender reed of American socialism – a split tied to the Vietnam War. The piece was for The Forward. Was there a political alignment uniting a strain of the Labor movement with aggressive foreign policy abroad? (Here’s the actual piece I wrote.) This was the question I was supposed to answer. And the answer, pretty clearly, was no.

There was an early panel with some hardboiled, fairly inspiring labor organizers. And there were some legit cold war social democrats, like the late Penn Kemble. But it soon became clear that the real center of gravity of the whole affair was Iraq War triumphalism and moral posturing about who was up to the challenge of saying the most people were evil. This was May 2003, the high mark of Iraq War hawk back slapping and triumphalism. The academic and small magazine equivalent of ‘booyahs!’ echoed through the hall. It was also the grand moment for Paul Berman’s enlistment into War on Terror big think with his Terror and Liberalism – sort of the thinking man’s brief on ‘islamofascism’, or going back to my post over the weekend, the thinking man’s Bill Kristol.

Berman’s book was something like the summa of that intellectual’s penchant for over-thinking things, that desire to have the times you live in match the headiest, most consequential and perhaps most idea-driven times of the past. If you’re a writer, an intellectual of a certain sort, who wouldn’t want to be Orwell in the late 30s and 40s or Hannah Arendt a bit later? And thus the whole effort to puff Islamic terrorism into the new totalitarianism of our day. I’d reviewed the book for The Washington Monthly a few weeks earlier and expanded on these criticisms there.

But the person who stood out to me more than anyone else was Herf, fastidiously averring from the panel dais that anyone who had opposed the Iraq War had “failed the test of armed anti-fascism.” Heady words! A phrase I’d never heard before. They struck me at the time as full of self-regard and historical pretension. The Democratic party would never win another national election until this historical error was righted and it was the end of liberalism in its entirety, he went on. He had all the hard sectarian left’s grandiosity and picayune concern for the obscure detail grafted like a face transplant onto the values of the hard right.

World War II ended 70 years ago (then almost 60). Outside of far-left pubs and Tea Party circulars, ‘fascism’ has not existed in any coherent form for a very long time. But some people can’t resist the hifalutin equivalent of dressing up as cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers. Play-acting. Fantasy. At least the Civil War and World War II re-enactors know they’re reenacting.

So when I saw this new piece, I thought, are we at another world historical moment with new Churchills and Chamberlains and Islamofascist bad guys? Well, yes we are! Only now Robert Menendez is Scoop Jackson or something like that. I did a word search for ‘fascism” (actually ‘fasc’ to cover my bases) and sure, enough ding ding ding ding ding!

One could be forgiven one episode of war intoxication. But another world historical crossroads so soon? And all over yet another government in the same part of the world to be toppled?

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