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June 02, 2006

Beinart and the Good Fight
Posted by Michael Signer

A major event occurred this week with the launch of TNR editor Peter Beinart's new book The Good Fight:  Why Liberals -- and Only Liberals -- Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again

The book will stir much controversy and may, in its own right, become not just commentary but phenomenon.  In the same way that William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale contained a young man's heart-felt cry of frustration at a cultural/political vortex -- and became, for intellectual politicos on the right, a beacon -- so Beinart's book (albeit in a cooler, more historical and journalistic form) could become a compass for the left. 

The book was excerpted in a long-format essay in The New York Times Magazine. But having read an early copy of the book (Beinart and I were on a Center for American Progress working group a few weeks ago and he graciously gave me his last copy), I can say that the argument really only comes into its full force in book form.  The historical sweep of Beinart's tale -- from cold war liberalism's launch in 1947 to its decline in the Carter and Clinton years -- are only really fully presented in the book.  And the ringing call to reclaim and rehabilitate the very idea of liberalism -- Beinart's most provocative goal and what could perhaps become the book's signal contribution -- really flowers at the end of the book (and has provoked even George Will to write admiringly of the book's rebuttal of modern liberalism's amnesia).

So buy it.

Beinart's ambitions are multiple, and the book is a wild success -- at the levels of serious analysis, story-telling, and as a call to action.  One may have critiques, to be sure -- mine was less of a critique than a query.  When Beinart was originally pitching the argument of the book in a TNR cover story titled, "A Fighting Faith," "Islamic totalitarianism" was to be the equivalent for modern liberals of Stalinist Communism for cold war liberals.  Beinart wrote:

[T]here is little liberal passion to win the struggle against Al Qaeda--even though totalitarian Islam has killed thousands of Americans and aims to kill millions; and even though, if it gained power, its efforts to force every aspect of life into conformity with a barbaric interpretation of Islam would reign terror upon women, religious minorities, and anyone in the Muslim world with a thirst for modernity or freedom.

Over the course of the last year, Beinart seems to have moved away from his laser focus on this idea and more toward the invocation of a certain idea of a fallibilistic, generous, courageous liberalism vis-a-vis the doctrine of American exceptionalism.  Here's the nut graf on Reinhold Niebuhr, the hero of his story:

But before Vietnam, and the disappointment and confusion it spawned, liberals did have a clear story of their own. In the late 1940's and 1950's, intellectuals like Reinhold Niebuhr and policymakers like George F. Kennan described America's cold-war struggle differently from their conservative counterparts: as a struggle not merely for democracy but for economic opportunity as well, in the belief that the former required the latter to survive. Even more important, they described America itself differently. Americans may fight evil, they argued, but that does not make us inherently good. And paradoxically, that very recognition makes national greatness possible. Knowing that we, too, can be corrupted by power, we seek the constraints that empires refuse. And knowing that democracy is something we pursue rather than something we embody, we advance it not merely by exhorting others but by battling the evil in ourselves. The irony of American exceptionalism is that by acknowledging our common fallibility, we inspire the world.

Beinart's aim, in other words, has become more internal and less external -- more about reimagining a new (and old) fusion of left and strength, less about counseling specific courses of action.  This is healthy, good, and probably more intellectually honest than forcing a hard parallelism between Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianism (which Hannah Arendt, who coined the phrase, said was defined through and through by a quest for total domination of the planet) and Islamic fundamentalism (which never has seemed purely about military conquest).

But that's not really a problem, as Beinart no longer claims that his argument would only work if liberals were to latch onto fighting Islamic totalitarianism as a raison d'etre.  In the second generation of his argument, it's a sort of national soul that Beinart seems after -- a conception of American character that draws its strength from acknowledgment of its weakness, that imagines possibilities through contemplation of limits.  It's a more pensive, quiet, almost spiritual strength that interests him -- more isometrics than bodybuilding.  The brash, swaggering style of Reaganite foreign policy seems to exhaust Beinart, in its almost wasteful spending of America's energy on a polarizing, heroic braggadocio. 

He's recalling us to the strength of an owl (after all, a bird of prey) rather than a hawk (and a dove, obviously, is out of the picture).  Beinart's move from the exclusive focus on Islamic fundamentalism to a broader invocation of a concept of America -- and of liberalism -- marks the evolution of Beinart's work from policy journalism to political theory, and the transition from journalist and wonk to visionary.

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Comments

Mr. Signer, you’ve produced a very well written post. Your closing analogy is particularly well done: it elucidates and clarifies and raises significant questions. The owl is a symbol of wisdom, particularly a patient wisdom, and wisdom is the realm of philosophy. In the brackish waters where philosophy and politics meet, we can see how different are conservative and liberal political philosophies.

In The Republic, Plato took up the question of wise-men ruling the state instead of honor-lovers. Socrates hopes to show young Glaucon that there can be no philosopher-king. Glaucon accepts increasingly preposterous necessities, in the Three Waves, until at last Socrates gives up and resorts to religious injunction. As a historical matter Socrates achieved his aim, Glaucon did not enter politics with the Thirty Tyrants. He did not become a philosopher either, but instead he became a librarian. Glaucon undoubtedly appropriated the ancient symbol of the library --- the owl.

Liberals tend to stand with Glaucon. They are forced to accept all manner of odd imperatives to social engineering, managing economic classes, and the like. In the end, theoretical prescriptions must face the test of praxis.

Conservatives tend to accept Plato’s point. There can be no philosopher-king. The realm of politics is prudential not theoretical. In particular, a political leader must sometimes do bad things to achieve a good end. Instead of an owl, we need the Lion and the Fox.

This difference is why Beinhart’s book is so striking.

Even more important, they described America itself differently. Americans may fight evil, they argued, but that does not make us inherently good. And paradoxically, that very recognition makes national greatness possible. Knowing that we, too, can be corrupted by power, we seek the constraints that empires refuse. And knowing that democracy is something we pursue rather than something we embody, we advance it not merely by exhorting others but by battling the evil in ourselves. The irony of American exceptionalism is that by acknowledging our common fallibility, we inspire the world.

Beinhart is saying that our refusal to accept exceptionalism is what makes us exceptional. It’s a bit contradictory.

Consider this from Bush’s National Security Strategy.

he United States has long championed freedom because doing so reflects our values and advances our interests. It reflects our values because we believe the desire for freedom lives in every human heart and the imperative of human dignity transcends all nations and cultures.
Championing freedom advances our interests because the survival of liberty at home increasingly depends on the success of liberty abroad. Governments that honor their citizens’ dignity and desire for freedom tend to uphold responsible conduct toward other nations, while governments that brutalize their people also threaten the peace and stability of other nations. Because democracies are the most responsible members of the international system, promoting democracy is the most effective long-term measure for strengthening international stability; reducing regional conflicts; countering terrorism and terror-supporting extremism; and extending peace and prosperity.
To protect our Nation and honor our values, the United States seeks to extend freedom across the globe by leading an international effort to end tyranny and to promote effective democracy.

This seems to be in total accord with Beinhart’s prescriptions, but it precedes his book by six years. To me, it seems Beinhart is simply adopting conservative policies, while exhorting us not to think of ourselves as “exceptional.” To me, it seems Beihart is conceding the whole of policy to conservatives, while trying to make a legitimate space for the America-hating left.

I grant you the owl may is more modest than the hawk, but both are efficient killers. Both live in a world where killing is necessary to survival. Both kill to brood their young. Both conservative and liberal foreign policies will confront the necessity to do bad things to achieve a good end.

As so often happens when liberals enter the world of policy, their recommendations look just like conservative ones. When liberals govern, praxis transforms them into conservatives.

There may be a philosophical difference between the owl and the hawk, but as a practical matter there is none.

... the book is a wild success -- at the levels of serious analysis, story-telling, and as a call to action.

How is it at mopping up spilled liquids?

Found this in www.itanjo.com; I think it's important

Some years ago, Republicans made “liberal” a dirty word and began using it to smear Democrats. Democrats never responded effectively; instead, recently, they’ve taken to shunning “liberal” in favor of “progressive”, a feeble defense, unlikely to blunt Republican smear campaigns. To fight back Democrats need to respond in kind.

Fortunately, the party in power (PiP) -– which gave us George Bush and two dicks (Cheney and Nixon) -- has provided plenty of ammunition:
- It attempted to gut social security.
- It created an absurdly complex prescription dug program designed by, and mainly for the benefit of, the big drug and insurance companies.
- It recently proposed these cuts: Medicare funding by $36 billion; the education budget by 38%; $600 million from science & technology; $300 million from environmental protection, and $276 million from
the Center for Disease Control, while a virulent bird flu pandemic is in the offing.
- It has proposed to eliminate a Census Bureau survey that provides of information about the impact of government social programs on needy families.
- It has amassed a mountain of national debt that will impoverish our children and grandchildren.
- All of these while transferring more and more of the nation's means and resources from those who need to those who have.

Add the PiP leadership's tricking us into the misguided, disastrous George-Bush-Iraq-adventure plus the totally inept, initially lackadaisical response to Katrina. Surely, it must be obvious, to anyone who’s been paying attention, that the Republican Party should be known for what it has become “THE SCREW THE PEOPLE PARTY”

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