Friday, August 5, 2011

“Can it be that our Enemies were Right?”

I pay attention to what David Frum says because I sometimes flatter myself that, if I squint, I can see in him a mirror image of myself. Kindly ignore the self-flattery--I don’t need to be reminded that everyone has heard of him and no one has heard of me. My point is that, if you allow for the inversion of right and left, Frum’s ideological predicament looks a little like mine. He’s a guy who still has a lot of tried and true conservative principles bouncing around in his head, but has recently discovered that he has lost touch with what passes for common sense in conservative circles. You might even say that Frum has one foot outside the conservative tent.

So I’ve been trying to divine the lesson that this Frum post holds out for someone with one foot outside the liberal tent. He takes off from something that Susan Sontag famously said to her comrades on the left in the early 1980s:
“Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or The New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?”
Sontag’s words provoke this question from Frum:
“Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Wall Street Journal editorial page between 2000 and 2011, and someone in the same period who read only the collected columns of Paul Krugman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of the current economic crisis? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?”
Let’s stipulate that the answer to both Sontag’s and Frum’s questions is an unequivocal “yes.” Where, if it’s true, does that admission leave us? Not, I’m sorry to say, where Frum seems to think (or perhaps fear) that it does.

Sontag was challenging the American left (or, if you prefer, what passes for the left in America) about the time it was condescending to Ronald Reagan for calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and predicting that "freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history." The left’s derision was excited by both the normative and empirical dimensions of Reagan’s anti-Soviet rants: the reference to “evil” was not only archaic, but obviously misdirected inasmuch as everyone who was anyone knew that the Soviet and American systems were developing along a “convergence” course. So the idea that communism was on its last legs could only be delusional wishful thinking on the part of a bunch of right-wing hayseeds.

I remember all this very well because, at the time, that’s pretty much what I thought myself. We only remember Sontag’s question now because even people like me can see clearly in hindsight that, when she asked it, we were the ones befuddled by wishful thinking about the cold war.  We were the last to know that we were standing on the precipice of a crushing ideological defeat.

I'd love to credit Frum‘s suggestion that the American right is now returning the favor. But look at the analogy he’s drawing between Sontag’s question and his own a little more closely. I'll grant that it holds up well enough on the normative side of things. Krugman makes the ethical case against conservative models of the political economy as staunchly, and arguably as effectively, as Reagan made the case against Soviet Communism.

Look, however, at the empirical side of what Krugman’s saying about the liberal welfare state (see, e.g. his column today). To hear him tell it, we and the countries in the Euro zone are going to hell in a hand basket not because a capitalist economy with a generous social safety net is economically unsustainable. Krugman's always happy to remind us that, if the people making monetary and fiscal policy are smart and ethically upright enough to listen to him, we’ll be fine. The problem is that people making the macro-economic decisions here and in Europe are indisposed to listen because they’re the creatures of structurally defective polities that systematically promote economic mismanagement by catering to special interest, rewarding the right's civically irresponsible behavior, etc.

Read enough Krugman columns and you could be excused for thinking that the actual liberal welfare state is headed for history’s ash heap.  Does that make it sound like conservatives are the ones standing, unawares, on the precipice of a crushing ideological defeat?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I listened …. with all due respect to Readers' Digest and the Nation … to my grandmother, an FDR hero-worshiper, who retained her new deal politics for life, dying with them intact and whole almost 60 years after "Franklin" (they were on a first name basis, on her dance card anyways) took office.

From her point of view, "communism" was sufficiently anathema on First Amendment grounds alone, and a deeper or more urgent critique was not necessary for her to wish the men like Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev a bummer of a trip through the determinism of the materialist conception of history.

Look at the argument conservatives make to claim they "won" the cold war: They say we needed all that extra spending liberals woulda cut -- or we would have not won. Meaning, centralized command-control economies CAN work if not coerced into parallel over-spending on arms of all kinds to impoverish their chances of economic viability. On this idea, you cannot say communism was "proved" wrong, only that it was tricked into thinking we were a military threat and that it had to respond in kind (or more) ...

Liberals liked some of the outcomes of that type of economy ... like everybody gets a place to live, a job, free college (no choice about your program, but free), and medical care ... But liberals and leftists ACTUALLY SAW and criticized the overwhelming coercion and corrosive effect of the fascist/police-state institutions the Soviet's believed necessary to the delivery of those economic outcomes.

The idea of arresting people for religious practice or activity, imprisoning novelists and scientists just for communicating their views, and opening mail and monitoring people's phone calls, were all seen as barbaric, unnecessary, and immoral.

Liberals, it is true, cared more for our own possibilities, particularly the health of our better angels, than they ever did about how people lived under the Soviets; they cared that the "long twilight struggle" could in its fervor or fanaticism, betray our progress. Adlai Stevenson, told the conventioneers at the 1952 American Legion:

"The tragedy of our day is the climate of fear in which we live, and fear breeds repression. Too often sinister threats to the bill of rights, to freedom of the mind, are concealed under the patriotic cloak of anti-communism."

This does not resound through time as an apology for the harsh and evil tyrannies of the Soviets or Maoists, nor do I think it subtlety confides a weaker critique of communism, nor some irresolution in standing up to them. I hear the trumpets of our better angels.

Ben Currie


PS: The actual policies advocated by Liberals post-Sontag, basically came down to 10-30 percent cuts in military spending over some period of time like 5 years, and then an effort to keep war spending stable -- DEPENDING on how the Soviets behaved. In the end, it all depending on whether the Soviet domination had rendered inert any gathering hope for freedom -- we didn't win the cold war, the kids and families in Prague, Berlin, Budapest, and Odessa , Kiev, and St. Petersburg did. That's why we never saw it coming. I could not have predicted the time frame, but I felt it ... computers, new wireless phones, fax machines!!, the spread of punk rock culture deep into Eastern Europe, the stunning end to any self-believed talk from them about the advantages of their system, the steady concession to truth exemplified in Gorbachev being unable to get away with describing Chernobyl as an "incident," were a trend -- it was just impossible to believe that if we couldn't with all our money and arms defeat the sons of bitches, how could their own people do it armed with nothing more than vague hopes and stubborn dismay.