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Ron Radosh

Monthly Archives: January 2011

There is only one major question facing U.S. policy makers: Do we succeed in pushing President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to institute both significant reforms and accept the necessity of eventual resignation and creation of a transitional government?  Or do we find that we are forced to find a new “democratic” government in office as the regime crumbles, and that the only organized political force existing at present uses its clout to in essence become the new Egyptian regime?

That force, as we all know, is the Muslim Brotherhood. On these pages, Barry Rubin has aptly noted that one outcome could be that:

The Muslim Brotherhood throws its full weight behind the rebellion. Soldiers refuse to fire at or join the opposition. Eventually, a radical regime emerges, with the Muslim Brotherhood as either ruler or power behind the throne. Remember that the “moderate democratic” leaders have been largely radical and willing to work with the Brotherhood. In that case, it is a fundamental transformation.

And Rubin’s harsh scenario, unfortunately, is as likely to take place as any other possible better alternative. Rubin is right that, should this occur, it “will be the biggest disaster for the region and the West since the Iranian revolution 30 years ago. And in some ways it will be worse.”

No wonder so many say we should stick with the devil we know. Or as FDR said of the Dominican Republic dictator in the 1940s, Rafael Trujillo, “He’s a son of a bitch. But he’s our son of a bitch.”

As bad as Mubarak is, and the Egyptian people have good reason to despise him, he is a lot better than other dictators who have led regimes in the Middle East. Remember Saddam Hussein, and also recall the forces that took power in Iran after the populace ousted the shah in 1979. I vividly remember all those student protesters on U.S. campuses bearing photos of the victims tortured by the shah’s secret police, and demanding the Shah’s ouster and his replacement by the great democratic revolutionaries led by the Ayatollah Khomeini. That was a popular theme as well in precincts of the always wise American left, symbolized by the arguments of Princeton University political scientist Richard Falk, or the comment of Jimmy Carter’s UN Ambassador Andrew Young that Khomeini was a “saint.”

It is most instructive to look back at Falk’s arguments, made a scant two weeks after the shah’s government fell and he fled Iran, and the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini returned to the country. Khomeini, Falk wrote in The New York Times (Feb.16, 1979), “has been depicted in a manner calculated to frighten,” and President Jimmy Carter had “associated him with religious fanaticism.” He was also “defamed” by the news media, some of whose pundits dared to call Khomeini an advocate of “theocratic fascism.”

Rather than being a religious leader who fit any of those dire characteristics made by his enemies, the movement had “a nonviolent record.” In addition, the would-be radical Islamist was a man who pleaded with Iran’s Jews to stay in the country. Certainly, even Falk had to acknowledge that the coming leader was against Israel. But that “of course” was due to the fact that Israel “supported the shah” and had not “resolved the Palestinian question.”

Khomeini was not dissembling, Falk assured his readers, since he expressed “his real views defiantly and without apology.” Moreover, his closest advisers were “uniformly composed of moderate, progressive individuals” and those he sought to lead a new government, all of whom “share a notable record of concern for human rights and see eager to achieve economic development that results in a modern society.” The reason the entire opposition deferred to Khomeini was not due to coercion, but because they knew that he and the Shiite “tradition is flexible in its approach to the Koran and evolves interpretations that correspond to the changing needs and experience of the people.” Its main desire and “religious orientation” was concern “with resisting oppression and promoting social justice.”

He knew that Khomeini sought “not to govern,” but instead simply to “inspire.” That is why he would live in the holy city of Qum, a place removed “from the daily exercise of power.” He would simply be a “guide or, if necessary, …a critic of the republic.” He would thus be able to show the world what “a genuine Islamic government can do on behalf of its people.” Falk assured readers that Khomeini scorned “so-called Islamic Governments in Saudi Arabia, Libya and Pakistan.” Thus one could talk of “Islam’s finest hour,” in which Khomeini had created “a new model of popular revolution based, for the most part, on nonviolent tactics.” Iran, he knew, would” provide us with a desperately needed model of humane governance for a third-world country.”

And you wonder why those of us who have become conservatives no longer trust the great spokesmen of the American left/liberal intelligentsia.

So far the retired Professor Falk has been quiet about Egypt. But others have not. Leading the pack is Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center. He also seems to be the man who has been one of Barack Obama’s chief advisors on the region, having chaired “at Obama’s request…the strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009.” This is hardly, as the Daily Beast editors seem to think, a credential that puts the man in a good light.

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John McWhorter today writes an interesting response to the attack made upon him at TPM Café by writer Jim Sleeper, who accused McWhorter and David Horowitz of both joining Glenn Beck in attacking Frances Fox Piven and thus endangering her life. As Sleeper puts it, “When Beck started in on Piven last year, the clever, sad writer John McWhorter did, too, as did right-wing provocateur David Horowitz.”

First, note Sleeper’s disingenuous style. He says Beck attacked Piven, the brilliant McWhorter whom he insults by calling him a “sad writer” then supposedly follows suit, and of course, so does Horowitz, whom Sleeper identifies as a “right-wing provocateur.” For the liberals who read Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo (TPM), these are code words so they know who the bad guys are.

Sleeper then says what he thinks of McWhorter. Because McWhorter criticizes Piven, he calls him “a young black linguist-turned-conservative racial bargainer.”  This, of course, makes little sense, since Sleeper himself is a critic of Piven. But Sleeper thinks he has a right to do that, since by his own account,  he is a bona fide left-liberal. But McWhorter is an African-American. To Sleeper, that means if McWhorter  is a critic of Piven, he obviously is a conservative.

Of course, Sleeper thinks he is beyond criticism, since his self-definition is that he is “scathing of both left and right, not because both sides are equally bad but because Piven’s left plays inexorably into the hands of the more-powerful right. They do it every time, and they know not what they do.” Get it? He only attacks the left when the left inadvertently helps the right; therefore, only he- Jim Sleeper- has the credentials to criticize someone like Fox Piven.

Anyone who thinks Sleeper might have had the last word has to turn next to John McWhorter, who knows how to take care of himself. The first point is that McWhorter stands by what he wrote earlier about Piven, and indeed, reprints the essence of his harsh characterization of the theory she and her late husband, Richard Cloward, unveiled in the mid 1960’s.  He writes:

I have written, often, that Columbia social work professors Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward (who were married) wreaked havoc on poor black communities in the sixties by openly calling on poor blacks to seek welfare payments rather than work. The story is simple and sad. Early last year I told it thusly in these pages, and see no reason not to simply present exactly what I wrote then. To wit, Piven and Cloward hoped that this would bankrupt the government and force a complete overhaul of our distribution of income. It wasn’t that they thought there was no work for blacks—just that it was beneath blacks’ dignity to do it. By 1968, the organization was staging more than two hundred protests a month, sometimes assisted by the Panthers.

….For three decades, welfare was an open-ended program, unconcerned with whether people got jobs or whether children’s fathers were present or able to work. The government never fell, and meanwhile black neighborhoods started falling to pieces. The near-fatherless tracts now thought of as normal would have sounded like science fiction in even the poorest black districts before the ’70s. Rarely in American history have people with such a destructive agenda had such power over the lives of the innocent. I wish Piven and Cloward had stayed obscure teachers instead of helping to ruin the lives of, for example, some of my relatives.

McWhorter not only does not back down, but notes how angry he is that Piven continues to argue that what she advocated was good and correct, which to McWhorter seems “callous.” But turning to  Glenn Beck’s current attacks on Piven, McWhorter suddenly loses his own argument. Rather than acknowledge that Beck both accurately quotes Piven and says essentially the same thing as McWhorter is saying, he argues that the death threats against her “chills and disgusts me.”

I agree. I wrote previously that Beck should have taken them all off The Blaze.com, and should fire those who allowed them to appear there while he was on vacation. (Despite this, Piven on TV the other day listed me in particular, along with Fred Siegel and Stanley Kurtz, and Beck of course, as being responsible for the death threats.)

McWhorter continues to say he never is in favor of waging “witch-hunts… against anyone whose views I disagree with,” nor does he wish to paint Piven’s ideas as “inherently ‘un-American,’” and favors her right to express her views. But what he is really angry about is that Sleeper accuses him of “taking a page from Beck,” when as he points out, he was criticizing Piven and Cloward when Beck never had heard of her.

Unlike Beck, John McWhorter is a certified intellectual, a man with advanced degrees who writes carefully and seriously. I can understand how furious he is to be identified by Jim Sleeper as someone who has chimed in to Beck’s campaign, thus as he writes, “banging out a screed designed to shore up the base that Beck and his ilk preach to.”

So McWhorter is furious that he is subject to “constant misinterpretation,” and people  think that he is a “right-wing Republican because I disagree sustainedly with many of the tenets of the Civil Rights orthodoxy and worked for a conservative think tank.”

I ask simply: why is John McWhorter so surprised at this charge?  Welcome to the club! All of us who have moved away from the old liberal shibboleths have faced the same charge. If you break ranks—you are a right-winger, a member of the lunatic fringe, a fanatic rabid rightist, etc. etc. etc. You are no longer a heretic, as the old neo-Trotskyist Isaac Deutscher once put it, but a “renegade,” one beyond redemption. How dare you whom we used to respect now make the same argument as a hated figure on the political right? If you are, you too must be a rightist yourself.

McWhorter is easily able to show that he has written critically about Piven and Cloward since the year 2000, and as he says, “I do not need Glenn Beck to teach me my social history.”  (In fact, I wish Beck would take some time out to read John McWhorter.)   Yet Sleeper blasts him as a “conservative movement water-carrier.” He is deeply angry, since as McWhorter writes, “I am a cranky liberal Democrat.”

In making that known—McWhorter is ironically engaging in precisely the same tactic used by Jim Sleeper—who as we have seen, already has written that when he criticizes Piven and Cloward, it is because he wants to save the left, not reinforce the right. McWhorter’s saying that he too is a liberal, however, will not serve to soften the truth that his own critique of Piven and Cloward is more damning than anything Glenn Beck has written.

Not content with making his political allegiance known, McWhorter continues to specify that he “supports Barack Obama, reviles the War on Drugs, supports gay marriage, never voted for George Bush” and so forth. All of these make McWhorter a traditional liberal, not a black conservative.  And he has a right to be angry that Sleeper writes that he has been “co-opted by the riches and fame offered him by the right wingers.” This too is an old charge. Piven said I had shifted from Left to Right because “the pay is better on the other side.” We all should be used to that canard by now. (How I wish it were so.)

Ok, so we now have learned John McWhorter is a liberal, not a conservative. Fine. That is his choice. But why is he so surprised that so many people think he is one? The answer is rather clear. Many of his arguments on black culture and the black experience echo that of those few black conservatives who proudly proclaim themselves conservative, like Shelby Steele.

I must add that when I met McWhorter years ago, I was already familiar with his work, and had profitably read one of his books. But I met him as a fellow  speaker at David Horowitz’s Restoration Weekend, which as everyone knows, is a conservative event sponsored by a very conservative organization, now called the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

At that particular event, other speakers included Ann Coulter and Christopher Hitchens—the first a hard conservative; the second an iconoclastic contrarian who was and is an enemy of radical Islam. I did not assume that because McWhorter was there he considered himself a conservative. But we talked in particular about the Black Panther Party, and his own personal knowledge of the evil effect that group had on his own family. Much of what he said was in fact similar to the criticism of the Panthers made by Horowitz. McWhorter’s views were his own; he did not need Horowitz to instruct him about the Panthers. But he should not be surprised to find that his appearance at this event and the similarity of his critique to that of a white conservative would lead some to charge that he was a water-carrier for David Horowitz.

So I take McWhorter at his word when he writes that he has “disappointed countless right-wingers” who think he is another Shelby Steele or Ward Connerly. Fine. But does he really have to point this out, and condemn them in order to get people to listen to him? Can’t we assess the views of Steele or Connerly without branding them first, so that people will evaluate their arguments on the merits, and not on where they put themselves in the political spectrum?

And yes, as long as Glenn Beck is accurately quoting Frances Fox Piven, and I believe that he is, can’t we evaluate the truth or falsity of what he says even though he is on the right? If it is similar to the argument made by McWhorter, is Beck’s conclusion wrong because he said it, while McWhorter’s is correct because he is a liberal?

The truth is, a liberal and a conservative can both be right. And in the case of Frances Fox Piven, they both are.

Poor Peter Dreier. When I quoted him accurately in my first blog post about Frances Fox Piven, unable to disown what he had written, he instead erupted in a torrent of verbal abuse and ad hominem attacks, calling me, among other things, an “ultra right-wing propagandist” and “lunatic blogger.” Resorting to this kind of name calling is what someone does who can’t argue on the facts.

Since his article came out right at the same time as my most recent blog post criticizing Piven’s politics while condemning those making death threats against her, he can’t accuse me of being part of the crazy bunch that are making themselves look stupid and illiterate. But wait a minute, this is precisely what he does do, as you shall see.

Dreier tells his readers that Piven is a great writer and “acclaimed academic” whose work has focused on influencing  “government policy” to lift “Americans out of poverty.” In the late ’60s, Piven and her husband Richard Cloward encouraged people to sign up for open-ended  welfare payments in hopes that it would bring the system down. Not only did this almost drive New York City into bankruptcy, but it hurt the people they claimed to be helping.  This was exposed in an article by John McWhorter published in TNR last March. He wrote  here that “rarely in American history have people with such a destructive agenda had such power over the lives of the innocent. I wish Piven and Cloward had stayed obscure teachers instead of helping to ruin the lives of, for example, some of my relatives.”

I have no objection to debating Peter Dreier or anyone else on the issues, but I believe he is being disingenuous about what Richard Cloward and Piven argued for back in their now famous 1966 article, as well as what Piven is calling for today. Instead of dealing with the serious conservative critique of their views, he says those that oppose their argument are part of a “conservative lunatic fringe,” part of a group of the “right-wing echo chamber” — his favorite phrase for dismissing the arguments of others.

I wish Dreier would get his facts right about me. He writes that I am a “conservative historian whose political trajectory…was from Red Diaper baby (son of Communists) to 1960s student radical, to ultra-right wing propagandist.” Two wrong statements in one short sentence. Neither of my parents were Communist; I was brought up in a Red Diaper baby milieu, but my father was a fellow-traveler who distrusted the CPUSA, and my mother was an anti-Stalinist Jewish anarchist. And as anyone who looks up my books and record of publishing knows, I am hardly an “ultra-right wing propagandist” but a prize-winning historian who respects the truth and takes it where it leads me.

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Death threats are no small matter, and are to be taken very seriously. I know how upsetting they can be because in the 1980s, I was subject to them myself. After The Rosenberg File was published and received a favorable front-page review by Alan Dershowitz in The New York Times Book Review, I began to get phone calls threatening my family and me, many of them around 3 am in the morning. One caller told me: “I know where your children live and their school schedule, and you and they better watch out, because we will get you.” I phoned the police who came to my apartment the next day, and we discussed if there was any way to identify the callers and put a stop to them.

Nothing happened, the calls stopped, and I’m still here. But the threats were quite unnerving, I assure you. The threats I received came from the pro-Communist Left, who considered me a traitor for proclaiming the Rosenbergs to be Soviet spies. So I am more than sympathetic to the plight of Frances Fox Piven, who, evidently, has received scores of threatening e-mails from people who do not agree with her politics. The editors of the leftist magazine The Nation, where Piven’s writings have appeared consistently since the 1960s, call her “distinguished professor, legendary activist, writer and longtime contributor to this magazine.” The last characterization is the only correct one, although, I’m sure she is “legendary” in their circles.

According to a report by Brian Stelter in Saturday’s New York Times, titled “Spotlight From Glenn Beck Brings a CUNY Professor Threats,”  threatening posts aimed at Fox Piven have appeared  on Glenn Beck’s website, TheBlaze.com, although the proprietors of the site have since removed the most offending ones. One of them that Stelter reprints says: “Somebody tell Frances I have 5000 roundas ready and I’ll give My life to take Our freedom back.” (The spelling and capitalizing have not been changed.)

According to The Nation, where Fox Piven’s December 22nd article “Mobilizing the Jobless” apparently set off this controversy, there were scores of postings calling for Piven’s murder, some “even volunteering to do the job with their own hands.” If true, the postings they present are indeed ugly and vicious, and Glenn Beck should command his staff for to remove them all, and to carefully monitor such comments in the future and delete them before they appear. Those responsible for allowing them to be posted should, in my opinion, be fired.

The Nation defends Fox Piven, maintaining that she only supports “voter registration drives, grassroots organization, and when necessary, street protest” and “recognizing the leverage that oppressed groups have — and working with them to use it,” which is “her special genius.” But the good professor has gone way beyond this.  I had discussed Fox Piven’s article in my PJM blog post pointing out her call for unemployed Americans, and those otherwise hurt by the recession, to “become more disruptive” and  emulate “the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece in response to the austerity measures forced on the Greek government by the European Union, or like the student protests that recently spread with lightning speed across England in response to the prospect of greatly increased school fees.”

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John B. Judis, senior editor of The New Republic, can be a top-flight reporter; he has in the past done first-rate reporting about politics. He thinks about it on a serious level and tries to make judgments that take into account demographics and the current political scene. He has gone to contested areas to conduct interviews with regular people in the districts, as well as to spend time with prospective candidates and to travel with them during campaigns.

He can also be highly ideological and wrong-headed. With Ruy Teixeira, he wrote a highly acclaimed book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, (2002), which, somehow or other, never has seemed to quite emerge, although when Barack Obama was elected president, he argued that the 2008 results had vindicated their analysis. Then, of course, came the 2010 mid-term elections, and the prognosis again looked rather dim, which Judis readily acknowledged.

Return of the Republicans TNR Now, Judis has the cover story [which temporarily is behind TNR’s firewall but will eventually be posted for all to read] in the latest issue of TNR, “Return of the Republicans, in which Judis does his best to demonize Republicans as totally evil and dangerous, as a political party that has departed from the American consensus, a group of “counterrevolutionaries” whose program “could imperil the country’s recovery-or even precipitate, as happened in 1937 and 1938, a double-dip recession.”

He argues that the Republicans, unlike the Democrats or the old Republican Party, have departed from the old paradigm of Clinton Rossiter, who in 1960, explained that our political parties are “creatures of compromise and moderation” that produce “coalitions of interest in which principle is muted and often even silenced.” That is why, Judis argues, America escaped violence and revolution during both wars and depression.

Now, he argues that the current Republicans, rather than following in the old direction, are determined to stand on principle. What he is doing, as Dennis Prager points out with other recent examples of the litany, is “libeling the Right.” In Judis’ eyes, only the Democratic Party maintains the Rossiter standard; the Republicans, as he says they did in the past:

[S]hut down the government, ambushed the president and his Cabinet with intrusive investigations into corruption—many of them mind-bogglingly trivial—and eventually tried to impeach President Bill Clinton on the most frivolous of grounds.

And in the present, during the past few years, they “disrupted the normal working of Congress and threatened not simply the president, but the power and prestige of the presidency.”

This means, Judis asserts, that in their desire to take power, they are doing so “at the cost of disrupting the political system.” To prove his argument, Judis goes back to the 1930s and the era of the New Deal,  when old-style conservative Republicans from rural and small-town districts combined with Southern Democrats — the racist Dixiecrats — to oppose FDR’s New Deal legislation. Like today, these Republicans falsely accused the New Deal of moving to fascism and/or communism, and planning an American form of totalitarianism. He gives us a series of attacks from those days, from politicians like Arthur Vandenberg and Hamilton Fish, and groups like the American Liberty League. You get the picture: reactionary troglodytes used specious arguments to oppose progress.

FDR, of course, argued that he welcomed the opposition of congressmen like Hamilton Fish, and vowed to “push the money changers out of the temple.” But as I argued many years ago in an article I titled “The Myth of the New Deal,” the major New Deal reforms of the Second New Deal, supposedly achieved because of the mass protests of organized labor and the Left, were actually favored by and vigorously supported by the large commercial and financial interests. Judis cites the opposition from small business groups like the N.A.M., and ignores the powerful corporate leaders, for example, who visited the White House to support and to propose the Social Security Act. There was a time when serious left-wing scholars, like G. William Domhoff whom I quote in the article, understood this truth.

What Judis does to demonize the old Republicans is to pick among those who actually were reactionaries, and who did not comprehend how the New Deal legislation served the interests of the actual corporate powers who benefited from New Deal reforms. Then he jumps to the present, to show today’s Republicans using similar rhetoric, and to hence argue that like in the past, the Republicans are opposing progress — and trying to destroy America in the process.

He refers favorably to someone he calls a “New Deal liberal Democrat” from the South who supported FDR (one of few) — Sen. Claude Pepper. He neglects to inform readers that Pepper’s nickname given him by his opponents was “Red” Pepper, referring not to his hair, but to his politics — since Pepper was an ardent fellow-traveler of the American Communist Party, a Senator who told Americans that Joe Stalin was a “man Americans could trust.”

Judis is right that there was certainly a conservative coalition opposed to the New Deal made up of Southern Democrats and northern Republicans who branded the New Deal as fascist, but he neglects to note that the Socialist leader Norman Thomas also proclaimed that the New Deal was an American version of fascism — and Thomas was anything but any kind of conservative. Of course, during the years of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, so did the American Communists brand FDR a proto-fascist and condemn the New Deal as fascist.  As for the New Deal being responsible for a renewed recession, as Judis does not indicate, current scholarship indicates that this conclusion is now fairly mainstream — and that conservatives said it was true back then does not make it wrong.

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The Dishonesty of Paul Krugman

January 16th, 2011 - 1:41 pm

Returning from vacation means that one is hit over the head with reality. A brief two weeks away, and our nation went through a collective trauma after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the tragic death in particular of 9-year-old Christina Green. I was able to watch the reaction by tuning in to both CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, although I was not able to have a reliable or quick internet connection.

So everyone seems to be saying that civility must be restored, and even Roger Ailes told his Fox News people to “tone down” the rhetoric. But what seems to be happening is that to many on the left or liberal side of the spectrum, toning down means denying that there are any substantive differences about how our country is to handle its problems, and accusing those who want a real debate over the issues of being divisive.

In particular, Friday’s New York Times ran its chief liberal commentator Paul Krugman’s “A Tale of Two Moralities,” in which the Nobel laureate economist began by telling his readers how President Obama’s speech “spoke to our desire for reconciliation.” Then he said, correctly, that “the truth is that we are deeply divided nation and are likely to remain one for a long time.” So far, so good. Krugman is certainly correct about that, unlike many other commentators who want to pretend we all agree about the basics.

But then Krugman gets to his main point: that in the national debate, his side is that of morality, justice, and reason — while his opponents on the conservative side are immoral, uncaring, and actually want the poor to die or disappear. Here are Krugman’s own words about how he perceives the differences between the two sides:

One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

Let us dissect that second paragraph about the would-be views of his conservative opponents. All conservatives, he argues, oppose taxes since they do not want their wealth to help others. Secondly, that position leads them to adopt violent rhetoric, since they believe taxation is tyranny.  And unlike those of his persuasion, they oppose any social safety net and want to return to the bad old days of no regulation and cut-throat competition — “tooth and claw,” as he puts it — and let the less well-off depend entirely on their own resources.

As Krugman has it, there is no serious discussion about health reform. His side favors a “moral imperative” to give everyone universal free health care; the other side wants only those who can afford health care to have access to good care. This is, he writes, a “deep divide in American political morality.” Ah, for those wonderful days when even Republicans “accepted the legitimacy of the welfare state.” But today, Republicans see any government programs as “illegitimate,” while Democrats do not.

I do not know whom Krugman is talking about. Does he not, for example, read his colleague David Brooks’ columns? Brooks, a rather moderate among conservatives, is generally the self-styled conservative most liberals always cite as proof that they respect conservatives who are serious and moderate. He is the conservative liberals always seem to quote and to love. Yet a few days earlier, Brooks himself pointed out sharply and eloquently the serious negative effects of ObamaCare.

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In Defense of Marty Peretz

January 9th, 2011 - 1:19 pm

I originally wrote this for FrontPage.com, but wanted to share it with my readers here at PJM — RR.

Martin Peretz has been a pillar of responsible liberalism since buying The New Republic magazine in 1974.  While establishing himself as a respected teacher at Harvard, he also made TNR into one of the most exciting publications of the post Vietnam era.  Peretz gave graduate students like Michael Kinsley, Leon Wieseltier and Andrew Sullivan the opportunity to establish themselves as important public intellectuals and in return they helped him give a second life to The New Republic, a magazine of politics founded by Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann in 1914. Peretz defined its unique blend of muscular political journalism and literary and cultural criticism.  By the 1980s, TNR was the most influential small circulation magazine in the country, and unique among liberal publications in its defense of America in a time of Soviet advances and leftish infatuation with the Sandinistas and other totalitarian adventures, and also in its steadfast defense of Israel when the “progressive” attack on the only democracy in the Middle East, which Peretz saw would become a roar on the left, was still just a murmur.

In 2007, Peretz sold TNR to the Canadian media conglomerate Canwest, but retained his position as editor in chief.  Two years later, as the magazine’s circulation continued to fall, he formed a group of investors to buy it back.  Throughout all the changes, Peretz established himself as the liberal the left loved to hate, primarily because of his resolute  defense of Israel in an era when progressives, acting in concert with Islamic extremists, insisted that it was a reincarnation of Hilter’s Germany.  Peretz’s enemies bided their time, waiting for an excuse to isolate and stigmatize him. Their moment came a few weeks ago when he wrote in his New Republic blog, “The Spine,” about how the primary target of Islamist violence is other Muslims.  “Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims,” Peretz wrote.  “I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment, which I have in my gut the sense they will abuse.”

The reaction was immediate.  Leftist commentators from the elite media like The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof denounced Peretz’s Islamophobia.  Students at Harvard picketed him with signs calling him a “racist rat.”  Intellectuals such as Kinsley, Peter Beinart, The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg, and others whose careers Peretz made, left him twisting slowly in the wind. It was a full fledged public burning that culminated in a recent New York Magazine article titled “Peretz in Exile.” The piece by Benjamin Wallace-Well portrayed Peretz as an intellectual pariah who was unbalanced and ultimately undone by his betrayal of the left, and most of all by his rear guard commitment to Zionism.

Wells broke the story that as of the first of this New Year, Peretz would be stepping down and given the new largely honorary position of Editor in Chief Emeritus. Moreover, it was reported that his popular blog on TNR’s website, “The Spine,” would be dropped from the magazine’s site. This turned out not be true. I spoke to Peretz, who is teaching in Israel, by phone. He pointed out to me that he is actively writing new blog entries — as he has the past few days. Moreover, rumors that he was forced out of the editorship are not true. He was contemplating leaving that post the last few years, he said, and only pleas by Frank Foer and Leon Wieseltier kept him from doing so. Involved in other projects, Peretz feels he had no time for the responsibility and day to day work of an editor in chief, and felt that now was the right time to relieve himself of the job. Moreover, the implication that the Board of TNR wanted him out are also not true; nor were the rumors that they had a controlling share in the magazine and that he had to bend to its desires.

Readers who may not have as yet seen the Wallace-Wells article were not informed on the magazine’s website of this major change. The magazine had previously announced that its actual editor, Franklin Foer, was leaving, and that Richard Just was to replace him. But the magazine did not announce any changes in Peretz’s status, and the last actual issue still listed him as Editor-in-Chief.

The truth about TNR, as I wrote elsewhere, is that the heyday of the magazine’s large influence lies far in the past, particularly in the decade of the 1980’s and the Reagan years. Most TNR readers I have spoken with regularly comment to me about the journal’s decline in importance over the years. Their decision to go bi-weekly, while possibly necessary for financial reasons, made it less effective as an influence in the nation’s political debate. Sites like “Real Clear Politics” sometimes put up pieces from TNR, but more than often, one finds more entries from conservative journals like National Review and the Weekly Standard. Checking the magazine’s print circulation figures that by law are publicly printed once a year, we see a steep drop in subscriptions, compared to a huge rise in left-wing magazines like The Nation, and a constant high circulation in National Review, still since Buckley’s days the standard-bearer for the conservative movement.

In 2000, TNR’s paid circulation was 101,651. In 2009, it had dropped to 53,485—the lowest in many, many years. A previous sale to CanWest did not work out, and in 2009, a group of investors in which Peretz had a major share bought the magazine from the Canadian firm that pledged to make it a major force in publishing once again. In 2010, in comparison, the left-wing Nation had a circulation of 145,000, and the conservative National Review in 2008 had a high circulation of 178,780. These figures tend to change and fluctuate with the fortunes of both the Left and the Right; conservative influence produces an influx of subs to left-wing organs of opinion, and a seemingly resurgent liberalism leads to growth of conservative ones. But despite these changes, the one constant has been a regular drop in the fortunes of TNR.

Peretz disputes the above assessment. First, he argues that on domestic policy, TNR has had a great influence in gathering support for Obama Care, which he backs. Right before Obama’s inauguration, TNR ran an event at which Rahm Emanuel and Barney Frank both spoke, and they would not have done so had they not understood TNR’s importance to the new administration, he argues. Moreover, he notes that TNR’s website has a huge readership, far more than The Nation. One cannot evaluate the magazine’s readership, says Peretz, by just going to the print edition.

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