I was surprised by the tone and substance of your response to my letter to you. I, of course expected you to take issue with my text, but didn’t expect your aggressive frontal attack. I was torn between anger and amusement.
Before I explain, though, I offer you a qualified apology if I have inadvertently distorted your specific positions. Perhaps this is because I don’t understand exactly what you mean when you assert that “the central issue of American radicalism has been to establish a permanent and continuing radical presence in American life.” Or perhaps, more likely, it is the way you make arguments, with complete assurance about what the left should and should not do, accompanied with swift dismissals of alternative positions. Yet, I should be clear: I recognize that you are not anti-feminist, and that you, of course, do oppose rape. I never meant to suggest otherwise.
I, nonetheless, still remain perplexed about your passionate opposition to Obama and anyone who might judge him and his presidency positively. He seems to represent to you all that is problematic in American politics, or at least American liberal politics.
But my letter had less to do with your specific positions, more to do with the stark categorical way you judge politics and political ideas: radically black and white. And here is where my anger and amusement at your response to my letter comes in.
Anger: You completely mischaracterize my politics. You decide that I am a liberal and that I am a representative of a particular brand liberalism. Mine is of the sort, you assert, that supported McCarthyism. You, of course, don’t know that members of my family suffered during the McCarthy period, and that supporting McCarthy and McCarthyism in any variety is very alien to me. Indeed, my opposition to late McCarthyism in my hometown has shaped my intellectual project, which has led to, among other things, the making of Public Seminar. Someday, perhaps, I will write a short post on this, certainly sometime you and I should have a coffee, and I will explain.
My sort of liberal also reluctantly supported the Vietnam war, you assert. But you must know or at least you should have assumed that I was an anti-war activist. In fact, I was even a leader of sorts, as I suspect you were. I never changed my opinion on that war, and it informs my understanding of geo-politics to this day.
Contrary to your assertion about the kind of liberal that I am, I want to extend not dismember the New Deal. I am very much a social democrat. I don’t want to go hard on crime, and never have (I was in a sit in protest in Rockefeller’s Albany offices during the Attica siege). I am not keen on drone warfare, and I most definitely am not soft on East European anti-Semitism, having written about and against it (see this, this and this), and worked with heroic opponents of it in the region.
But you are right, I think being tough on Putin is not a bad idea.
You are right as well, in a sense, about my anti-communism, though it is not insipid. I have been an anti-communist, I guess, since I critically studied and politically supported the opposition to the Communist regimes in Central Europe. I was denounced in the Communist Party newspaper in Poland, Trybuna Ludu. I supported the Solidarity Movement both above and below ground, and I even engaged in a little below ground activity myself. And it is this experience that led me to my appreciation of the gray.
When I see beauty in the gray, and therefore, become your target as a representative liberal, I am in fact not arguing against taking a strong progressive position. But I am arguing, following my teacher on these matters, Adam Michnik, that some reflective self criticism is a good thing.
I understand myself not as a liberal, but as a person of the left, informed by the Central European notion of self limiting revolution, as well as informed by radical, liberal and conservative political-intellectual positions. I am aware that my opponents are not necessarily enemies. I look at ways of collaborating with people with different beliefs and positions than mine, seeking to realize my most fundamental principles and commitments, but knowing as a democrat that this must include working with people who are not like me and don’t agree with me on many issues. I supported Obama enthusiastically, but I also supported with equal enthusiasm his Occupy Wall Street opponents. Together, I believe, they could and did make a difference. Now, for example, the principle of universal healthcare and the problem of structured inequality are very much on the agenda, not only among our friends and colleagues in relatively isolated academic political circles, but in the larger society. More could have been accomplished if collaboration and pushing went further. Perhaps this is the potential of Bernie Sanders’s candidacy.
I’ll add that it would have been great if OWS was coopted by the Democratic Party. The grayness of such a prospect I find beautiful. This, by the way, is the sort of things I examine in The Politics of Small Things. It is a sociological account of how the power of the powerless operates: a notion that you lazily dismiss when you focus on the grand march of the left. Mine is an account of how things changed, not only around the old Soviet bloc, but also in the anti-war movement that followed the attacks of 9/11.
Amused: But I confess, I am also amused by your reply. The way you categorize me, quickly and aggressively, specifically in your last paragraph, dismissing my appreciation of the gray and of small things, that which is at the very center of my intellectual perspective and my very being, actually demonstrates my critical point, one that is hard to make. It’s going to take me a long time to specify the different ways I appreciate the beauty of the gray, applying the sensibility to various situations, and also specifying when gray is not attractive at all. But your reply, as a clear negative example, demonstrates what I am up against, and why it is important. Thanks for the assistance.
I too like you as a person, as I am amused by your provocations, even when you absurdly suggest that I “cover the whole mean-spirited American empire with an oily film of hypocrisy.” I ask myself whether you really mean this, and I answer hopefully that you don’t, and then I smile.