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Paul Berman Addresses His Critics on ‘the Left’

The author offers a final word to the responses generated by his essays on the future of the left, and brings Tablet’s series to a close

Paul Berman
December 20, 2018
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

“Do we have to?” The estimable Tim Shenk, co-editor of Dissent magazine, puts this question to me. I have made the case in Tablet that patriotism ought to be a starting point for the American left, and Shenk waxes skeptical. The waxing extends to another point, as well: “But can’t it just be a country?” Questions demand answers. My own sentiment, then: “Yes, we do.” And, “No, it can’t.”

America can’t be just a country because it isn’t. It is (or was, pre-Trump) the world hegemon. A slight difference! True, America is also just a country—sometimes not a very good country, either. Did you know that, at the Battle of Concord in 1775, the embattled farmers committed a war crime? Having fired the shot heard round the world, they went on to shoot a couple of wounded Red Coats in cold blood. Nathaniel Hawthorne tells the story. Not everything is wonderful. The International Criminal Court ought to have been on the case from the start. Nor can America compare to Canada, in certain regards. I have made the case in these pages for Mexico’s various superiorities over the United States. In regard to Scandinavian superiorities, I stand with Bernie Sanders.

And yet, to look upon America as merely “just a country” would be to miss the main trend of world history during the last 240 years or so. This is the liberating and democratizing trend that got its worldwide start in the American Revolution and, arching upward, reached an apex of sorts with the international liberal order of the last 75 years, under American institutional and even military protection—not a very satisfactory apex, to say the least. But apices are relative. And 240 years is only a start.

“Just a country” is a way of missing the scale and meaning of these developments. Ultimately “just a country” is Donald Trump’s idea. It expresses a right-wing dream of a certain sort—the dream of an America shorn of the concept of progress that came out of the Revolution, a tiny America that, because it is “just a country,” has every right to pursue its own narrow and commercial interest, and has no obligation to adhere even to its own ostensible principles of democracy and human rights, and has no obligation to go about defending and promoting those same principles in any other part of the world. Here is a vision of America stripped of its best and most buoyant qualities, and left to drown under the leaden weight of everything else.

Tim Shenk asks “Do we have to?”—in regard to adopting a patriotic posture—because he worries that patriotism entails a myth, perhaps a “noble myth,” but, in any case, a myth, meaning, a lie. He would prefer that we tell truths. I stand with him on the matter of truth telling. Only, how do we get at truths? There is a way to do so, which is to invoke a standard against which hard realities can be measured. The standard, I propose, should be “All men are created equal.” Very sorry about that, but have you got a better one?

Here is absolutely a hard reality, which even the killjoy historians ought to acknowledge. During the entire course of American history, every time that some new group of people has wished to identify and denounce and overcome the injustices that oppress them, they have done so by invoking, in effect, 1776, in order to say, “Given that all men are created equal, how about us?” And, because America is America, this is taken to be a powerful argument—taken that way not by everybody, obviously, but, at least, by the people one admires.

I could quote Abraham Lincoln, who invoked 1776 explicitly; or Martin Luther King, who invoked Lincoln’s invocation; or Michael Harrington, the socialist, who used to count for something at Dissent magazine and was eloquent about the flag. I quote, instead, the impromptu victory speech, rendered while standing on a chair or a table at a Bronx poolhall last June, of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who, having learned that she had won the primary election, concluded her very excited thank you to her supporters by saying, “Let’s recommit ourselves to the future of this great nation.”

The point of my argument in Tablet is to advise the left-wing sophisticates who roll their eyes to get over it. It is a great nation, not because homeless people are scavenging in the trash cans, which they are, but because it possesses a great principle. This is the principle of democratic progress, which, in America, happens to be, for historic reasons, a patriotic principle. The principle of progress happens also to be a golden central thread in the grandest tradition of American thought. A profundity, then, and not a pious banality. A philosophy, and not just an orator’s ploy—if we choose to think it through. A wealth at our disposal, therefore.

And the left-wing screwballs and the hopped-up anti-Zionists, waving their scimitars—what are we to think about them? Emily Benedek puts this question to me in regard to DSA, or the Democratic Socialists of America. She is right, of course. DSA was founded by Harrington and Irving Howe and their friends (and some of their nonfriends) from the old tradition of the Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation, which used to count for something in the labor movement and liberal politics. Lately, DSA has had the misfortune to get taken over by a flash mob of fresh-faced hipsters just out of college. And the hipsters have naturally turned the august organization into a zoo of political fantasies of every preposterous and grisly sort, unto the people who (as Benedek correctly points out) do not go very far to disguise the fact that they are chanting “Death to the Jews.”

The old-time social democrats in DSA have retreated to a minor caucus of their own, under the name DSA North Star, where my own friends are currently holed up in a safe room. But I don’t hold out much hope for them. Anyone who knows the history of the American socialist movement will recognize that DSA has fallen into an ancient pattern. It is the pattern of democratic left-wing youth groups that get taken over and destroyed by the fantasists of death and mayhem, with examples from the 1910s, the 1930s, and the 1960s. I consider myself to be the historian of this particular phenomenon, chiefly in the first chapter of an old book of mine, A Tale of Two Utopias, which I recommend to anyone who wishes to predict the future of DSA. Currently, DSA is said to have 50,000 members. Just wait until it reaches 75,000. It will be worse yet. When it reaches 100,000, it will implode.

Still, Benedek seems to me unfair to Ocasio-Cortez, who had the very good grace to acknowledge on TV in a much-watched interview with Margaret Hoover that her past comments on Israel and Palestine reflected her own ignorance. Who else has had the aplomb to say such a thing? And it is unfair to tax Ocasio-Cortez with having failed to go on the AIPAC tour of Israel. Let her get an apartment first.

But does the sorry fate of DSA augur something for the Democratic Party? Will the Democrats, too, get taken over by ideological flash mobs? This was the opening question of my series of essays. The potential is obvious. The whole spirit of the age favors the Yellow Vests. I have written everything else in my series for the purpose of sketching a few philosophical and foreign-policy ways of thinking that people on the liberal left and the stalwarts of the Democratic Party could look to, as they go about preparing their resistance—confident, as they ought to be, that something about a properly conceived politics of the liberal left has always vibrated sympathetically with the deeper American idea.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.