By Luke Brinker
Among the most repugnant characteristics of the American right is its self-righteous, nuance-free, Manichean worldview. One is either with “us” or with the ter’rists. One either opposes full legal equality for gays and lesbians or countenances the moral degradation of the United States. One either unquestioningly supports the actions of the right-wing Israeli government or is an anti-Semite who wishes to see the Jewish state wiped off the face of the earth.
In its best, Niebuhrian form, liberalism attunes itself to the complexities of the world. Unlike triumphalist progressivism, liberalism acknowledges human frailties, but liberals, adhering to Enlightenment principles, place more faith in human agency than conservatives.
Of course, Niehbuhrian liberalism does not have a monopoly on the American left. If we needed a reminder of this, the Twitter exchange set off by Dylan Matthews and Glenn Greenwald on New Year’s Eve (about which I blogged) provided one. Calling white liberals to task for lauding the racist demagogue Ron Paul, Matthews elicited a scathing response from Greenwald, who
said clearly implied that the impacts of the Obama administration’s wars on terrorism and drugs are far worse than anything Paul may or may not have written 20 years ago. Not only is the drug war “racist,” Greenwald argued, but thanks to the administration’s prolific use of drones, the US is “constantly killing Muslim children.” I responded that while I, like Greenwald, quarrel with both the drug war and the blowback-inducing drone campaign, it is scurrilous to compare the racial animosity displayed in Paul’s newsletters to debatable Obama policies, which are not motivated by personal racism on the part of the president or his administration.
What most disappoints me about Greenwald’s reaction to critiques from Matthews and others like Michael Cohen and J. Bradford DeLong is the way Greenwald impugned their motives. Those of us who think Paul’s racism, homophobia, and conspiracy theorizing are disqualifying must, by Greenwald’s logic, also want to silence critiques of civil liberties violations, foreign wars, and the deaths of innocent Muslims. In fact, we may even be said to relish the deaths of those Muslims. This is black-and-white Manichean thinking of the most reprehensible sort.
Before I’m accused of being a blindly loyal Obama fanboy, I’ll reiterate my opposition to both policies Greenwald mentioned and note that it’s Greenwald and his acolytes who are displaying the most creepy devotion to a personality cult. Apparently the entire criticism of the national security state collapses in the absence of one Texas congressman. But is it not fair for Greenwald and others to point out that it’s all too easy for me to say that Obama’s motives aren’t sinister, even if the consequences of some of his policies are tragic? Commenter Moral Authority made this point in response to my earlier post:
“I find the cavalier use of drones and the continued prosecution of the disastrous drug war to be foolish and immoral, but I do not believe they are motivated by personal racism on the part of Obama and his administration.”
So what are they motivated by, then? Presumably callous indifference to the institutional racism and classism that affect certain groups of people — some American minorities in the one case, and foreign Muslim civilians in the other — and render them invisible, voiceless nonpersons as far as our political system is concerned. In other words, Obama isn’t a racist, he’s just a psychopath. Sounds like a winning campaign slogan.
Here we have left-wing Manicheanism at its finest. In Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics, the historian identified such moralistic condemnation as a key element of the paranoid style. One never simply differs with one’s political adversaries on questions of means and/or ends. The paranoiac considers his adversary to be malicious, unscrupulous, or, in this case “a psychopath.” Call me a Kantian, but I can’t escape the conviction that intent matters. While it cannot be proved or disproved, I believe Obama pursues the policies he does out of sincere good intent. That doesn’t make me an Obamabot; as I must constantly repeat, I don’t agree with all Obama policies. I simply happen to believe that it’s intellectually lazy to condemn those with whom I disagree as amoral and deranged.
To conclude, I will note the words of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., in his 1949 manifesto for anti-Communist liberalism, The Vital Center. It is easy for the armchair critic to deride the actions of those with responsibility, he asserted:
The weakness of impotence is related to a fear of responsibility – a fear, that is, of making concrete decisions and being held to account for concrete consequences. Problems are much simpler when viewed from the office of a liberal weekly than when viewed in terms of what will actually happen when certain ideologically attractive steps are taken.
Too often the Doughface really does not want power or responsibility. For him the more subtle sensations of the perfect syllogism, the lost cause, the permanent minority, where lie can be safe from the exacting job of trying to work out wise policies in an imperfect world.
Politics becomes, not a means of getting things done, but an outlet for private grievances and frustrations. The progressive once disciplined by the responsibilities of power is often the most useful of all public servants; but he, alas, ceases to be a progressive and is regarded by all true Doughfaces as a cynical New Dealer or a tired Social Democrat.
Having renounced power, the Doughface seeks compensation in emotion. The pretext for progressive rhetoric is, of course, the idea that man, the creature of reason and benevolence, has only to understand the truth in order to act upon it.
But the function of progressive rhetoric is another matter; it is, in Dwight MacDonald’s phrase, to accomplish “in fantasy what cannot be accomplished in reality.” Because politics is for the Doughface a means of accommodating himself to a world he does not like but does not really want to change, he can find ample gratification in words. They appease his twinges of guilt without committing him to very drastic action.
Thus the expiatory role of resolutions in progressive meetings. A telegram of protest to a foreign chancellery gives the satisfaction of a job well done and a night’s rest well earned. The Doughfaces differ from Mr. Churchill: dreams, they find, are better than facts.
Progressive dreams are tinged with a brave purity, a rich sentiment and a noble defiance. But, like most dreams, they are notable for the distortion of facts by desire.
From the comfort of my own corner of the world, I can readily take the Obama administration on for continuing far too many Bush-era terrorism policies. I fully expect to continue opposing such policies, and to support efforts to push the administration in a new direction. I also don’t deny the invaluable contributions of legislators who stand up to the increased concentration of power in the executive branch. But I don’t think it’s irrelevant that Obama’s arguable policies are being planned and executed in the context of a struggle with foreign forces who have done far more to kill “Muslim children,” deny girls education, violate human rights, and wreak havoc on their societies than the US has ever done or set out to do.
Update: I will no longer respond to comments along the lines of, “What does it matter if the intentions of the administration officials urging murderous drone strikes are pure?” If it isn’t clear that a) this post is about the terms of political discourse and the need to be cautious about making sweeping moral condemnations and b) I actually question the efficacy of the drone strikes myself, then I see no point engaging commenters in further dialogue.
Update 2: For an eloquent elucidation on Reinhold Niebuhr and the simplistic worldview of Glenn Greenwald, read Smartypants.