1947 revisited

Posts from Mark Schmitt and Josh Marshall about Peter Beinart's much discussed TNR piece remind me that I intended to comment on it way back when.

The Islamofascism as the new Cold War/World War II canard has certainly been one of the most cringeworthy rhetorical devices of the last 3 years. It is aggravating on one level because it smacks of people that went to good schools trying to emotionally manipulate a country that only understands those events in debased and oversimplified Hollywood versions (The War on Terror is like Saving Private Ryan? That movie was hardcore...) On a more serious level, it completely obscures the real threat at hand. Even if most of the people in charge deploy it cynically, it creates a sort of vicious circle of historical posturing and policy choices informed more by political than legitimate considerations.

To hope, as Beinart seems to, that liberals will ever do anything but scoff at this shoddy history and shoddier approach to policy is just plain misguided. The numbers simply don't add up to a "defining global struggle of our generation". And if the goal is to define the authentic principles of a new Democratic party, loyalty oaths to an overblown false analogy are not the place to start.

But Beinart isn't really after a good policy that the Democrats should claim for themselves. He's after emotional resonance for Democrats. And you can't really blame him: the journey towards a Democratic party defined by an active unifying vision and narrative is a long way from over, and the years in between are going to be confusing and frustrating. He is also trying to offer Democrats an emotional narrative to counter the one that has enraptured so many conservatives over the last few years.

But the factors that have made 9/11 a neverending political and emotional bonanza for conservative politics have a lot less to do with taking a stand against Islamofascism and a lot more to do with principles and currents of national and in many quarters ethnic chauvinism that are diametrically opposed to liberals core values. To think we could appropriate the power of the 9/11 worldview and capture its power for ourselves is to misunderstand why that phenomenon works for so many people.

The act that Beinart eventually settles on to define those who take up his suggestion, the swift renunciation of anyone who opposes military adventurism (i.e. Michael Moore, Moveon, etc.) is supposed to be the equivalent of the ADA's renunciation of communism and Soviet influence in the late 40s. But, as both Marshall and Schmitt point out, this gets liberal anti-communism, and the virulent anti-Bush left, totally wrong. Besides actual communists and communism, the factions Schlesinger and co. opposed were people still clinging to myths and misinformation about the Soviet Union left over from a generation before. More importantly, many of the intellectual strains supporting the Democratic party and broader goals of economic justics at midcentury were intertwined with socialist politics and analysis.

Postwar liberals had the foresight to understand how the world was shaping up after the war: troubled but free nations against a really, really fucked up totatlitarian empire, and the tenacity to make their fellow liberals face up to the future coming down the pike. But the most convincing thing about the choice posed by the ADA and like-minded liberals was simple: it was a real, all encompassing threat.

Had Michael Moore and Moveon existed in 1947, they would have been branded the "anti-anti-communists". Voices standing up for the costs that demagoguery and political opportunism were inflicting on American values, and, sure enough, using comparable outrage and overblow rhetoric to fight the demagogues of the right.

What made postwar liberalism unique is that these were secondary concerns. The ADA certainly would have sympathized with Michael Moore and company. But more to the point, they would understand that Moore et al are hardly the main event. They are duking out a fight that is ultimately peripheral to the creation of a consensus liberal vision.

Implying as Beinart does, that they are the fellow travelers in our mist is to completely discount the real ideological battle at hand after World War II, and completely overestimate the ideological battle at hand in 2004 with medieval Islamist fanaticism.


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