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Take a flying leap...

By Michael J. Smith on Wednesday March 8, 2006 10:18 PM

This seems to be the week for leapers-to-the-defense: first Alan Dershowitz, now Eric Alterman.

I hasten to add that I do NOT read Alterman (or anybody else) on MSNBC, but I do occasionally go slumming at the Huffington Post, where Alterman recently recycled one of his meanderings from the Bill Gates site. He's very angry that his "friend" Todd Gitlin was roughly handled in a review by Dan Lazare in The Nation (yes, The Nation):

The Nation published one of the worst pieces I have ever read in the magazine this week. Daniel Lazare’s “review” of my friend Todd Gitlin’s new book will offer Nation-haters ammunition for years to come. The review is simultaneously smarmy, dishonest, Stalinist, and sectarian in a fashion that dishonors everyone involved with it.
Lazare a Stalinist? I always thought he dug with the other foot, but in Alterman's mind, I guess, it all blurs together.

One of the amusing things about Alterman's piece is its roll call of heroes: Paul Berman, Michael Walzer, David Remnick, Mike Tomasky, Dissent magazine (subject of a famous Woody Allen joke*), "the late great Irving Howe," and "honest, honorable, liberal anti-Communists Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Daniel Bell." The corresponding roster of demons includes Josef Stalin, Noam Chomsky, and Alex Cockburn. What a wonderful muddle.

Lazare's piece at The Nation is (stupidly) available to subscribers only, but I was quite surprised, after reading Alterman's carpet-chewing, at its calm tone -- I was expecting a real Jeremiad, and certainly the flag-waving Gitlin deserves one. A few excerpts:

When Katha Pollitt published a column in [The Nation] saying she would not fly the flag because it "stands for jingoism and vengeance and war," [Gitlin] was incensed. He fired back with an article in Mother Jones accusing certain unnamed leftists of "smugness, acrimony, even schadenfreude"--an especially incendiary charge in those super-heated times, since it implied that Pollitt and her co-thinkers derived pleasure from the suffering around them. After finishing with them, Gitlin attacked Noam Chomsky and the late Edward Said for statements he regarded as foolish or disloyal, and then rounded on Indian novelist Arundhati Roy for daring to suggest that Osama bin Laden was Bush's "dark doppelgänger" and that "the twins are blurring into one another and gradually becoming interchangeable." Today, with postinvasion deaths in Iraq outnumbering those in Lower Manhattan by better than thirty to one, Roy's sentiments seem positively mild. Yet for Gitlin they were indicative of "a prejudice invulnerable to moral distinctions"....

"Democratic patriotism," Gitlin says, does not mean mindless genuflection but recognition that the United States is complex and multihued, continually washed over by powerful crosscurrents from both the left and the right. Instead of condemning American power in toto, he maintains that leftists should "acknowledge--and wrestle with--the dualities of America: the liberty and arrogance twinned, the bullying and tolerance, myopia and energy, standardization and variety, ignorance and inventiveness, the awful dark heart of darkness and the self-reforming zeal." One senses that Gitlin could go on in this pseudo-Whitmanesque fashion for pages at a time.

...Rather than calling for less veneration [of the United States], Gitlin is calling for more. This would seem to make no sense, but perhaps that is the point. As the title of his new book suggests, Gitlin aims his argument at American intellectuals, a group he never attempts to define although at times he seems to regard it as synonymous with the left. In seeking to advance a deliberately incoherent argument, perhaps he is seeking to de-intellectualize the intelligentsia, to somehow pressure it--and, by extension, Americans in general--into thinking less. This, after all, is what authoritarianism does: By inducing people to worship artificial totems, it encourages them to switch off their critical faculties. The result is greater compliance and less independent thought, a win-win situation for the right.

Well, come to think of it, I can see why Alterman is mad.

* From Annie Hall: "I heard that Commentary and Dissent had merged and formed Dysentery."

Comments (4)

"American intellectuals" . . . now there's a meta-oxymoron. I thot Spiro Agnew had them all gassed.


"This, after all, is what authoritarianism does: By inducing people to worship artificial totems"

recall that great woodstock era
mock chant .....

"its only a movie its only a movie "

works great as a mantra to dispell the power
of an evil totem

but alas
a red white and blue
evil empire

Thanks for reading Alterman and Gitlin, so I don't have to. (shuuder)

Nice piece.

I am really sick of Alterman's patriotic chest thumping and bible thumping (in the most recent Nation)--not to mention his opportunistic Chomsky bashing.

And don't get me started about Gitlin.

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