Man Without Qualities

Sunday, December 08, 2002

Confusion Of The Left

George Packer provides his survey of intellectual confusion in the "responsible left" as it gropes for an intellectual basis to oppose war with Iraq.

Curiously, the article includes a discussion of Christopher Hitchens, who has made quite a separate peace with the subject.

There is a striking lack of personal and political insight in these intellectuals. They complain that the President has not provided enough "ideas." ("The one level on which he hasn't even tried to make a case is the level of ideas." and "So the war that began on Sept. 11 is primarily a war of ideas, and Berman harshly criticizes Bush for failing to pursue it.") But there is a general palpable dislike for President Bush in these people (other than Hitchens), and that dislike seems to be a serious obstacle to their obtaining clarity of thought. Specifically, the complaints about the "lack of ideas" seem to distract them from dealing with their self-imposed obstacle. After all, if one is deeply and personally committed to believing that a particular person is an "idiot" it becomes a lot harder to acknowledge him as a source of ideas. They don't exhibit here the personal insight needed to realize and overcome that obstacle. Perhaps there is a niche for a specialized therapist here.

The criticism that the President has not waged a war of ideas also seems to completely misconceive the nature of the office of the Presidency. The President is a popularly elected leader and executive. The President should of course personally explain certain kinds of ideas. Mr. Bush has done plenty of that. His speech to the United Nations, for example, packed quite a wallop and was full of efficacious ideas. But the President does not run an academic seminar. It is nothing short of hilarious to imagine a President larding his public addresses with the kind of academic constructs most of the people considered in this article crave (other than Mr. Hitchens). And for those kinds of ideas there is no shortage of individuals inside and outside the Administration perfectly capable of conducting policy seminars. Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney, for example, have not been shy about getting into the theoretical and strategic aspects of things in the right settings. And I think there have been some public signs that Mr. Powell has done some good strategic thinking on these matters. But there is no need for the Administration to officially adopt as policy and justification some kind of rigid ideological constructs of the sort demanded here. For one thing, what happens to the losers within the Administration in the war of the apparachnicks needed to create and adopt such a construct - Siberia?

And, as with the reception given to Ronald Reagan's musings, the kind of people considered in this article don't necessarily know an "idea," or a valuable "idea," when they see one and it's effectively articulated. Mr. Reagan's recently released writings show him to have been brimming with extraordinary ideas that ultimately transformed much of the world, but would have been - and would now be - brutally dismissed in most academic seminars. Mr. Reagan's speeches effectively conveyed many of those ideas - and got him labeled as "stupid" and "naive" by the self-proclaimed intellectual class. Who, for example, could forget the academic howlings of "stupidity" and "naivete" occasioned by Mr. Reagan's references to the now-independent countries that then made up the Soviet Union as "captive nations" whose bondage need not be accepted?

Ultimately, the entire article emits a rather musty sense of some rather mostly rigid and unimaginative people who are annoyed, just plain annoyed, that the world is not presenting itself to them in a way that suits their 1960's-era seminar thought processes. One can almost hear them protest: "Where is the material for a career-advancing policy paper!" The mustiness shows up in so many ways - the most visually apparent being the complete absence of women and minorities in the group.

But, then, 1960's academic seminars were all about and by liberal, white guys ticked off that the world just didn't admit how important they and their thoughts really were.

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