Roger’s Rules

A passing thought about Jacob Heilbrunn, or how Autolycus lost his charm

I had been intending to review Jacob Heilbrunn’s recent book They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, but somehow I just couldn’t muster the energy. Why hasn’t Mayor Bloomberg or some other meddling bureaucrat insisted that books like this come with a Surgeon General’s warning, advising the public not to drive or operate machinery within 4 hours of reading it. I mean the book is . . . a . . . snooze. In essence, it’s the old Michael-Lind/David-Brock wheeze: promising young chaps who start out right and become . . . wrong (Christopher Hitchens on Brock: “incapable of recognizing the truth, let alone of telling it”).

The whole phenomenon is instinct with unedifying lessons about human-all-too-human nature, opportunism, and the Lure of the Left. You can also learn a bit about the economy of ingratitude and the mechanics of common or garden variety treachery from studying these stories. Heilbrunn’s book fits snuggly into this rancid library but by 2008 the tale he told was old, old, and just . . . so . . . tired. The eyelids did flutter open, however, when I stumbled across John Podhoretz’s bijou at Contentions, Commentary magazine’s weblog, about Heilbrunn’s latest gambit, neatly summarized in John’s title: “Is Jacob Heilbrunn a Plagiarist?” Well, is he? John draws on a review by Corey Robin in The Nation.

Here’s Heibrunn:

David Brooks blamed the Iraqis for succumbing to innate “demons: greed, blood lust and a mind-boggling unwillingness to compromise…even in the face of self-immolation.” Leon Wieseltier said much the same thing in The New Republic: “The security situation is at bottom the social-cultural situation. It seems increasingly clear to me that the blame for the violence in Iraq, and for its frenzied recoil from what Fouad Ajami hopefully called “the foreigner’s gift,” belongs to the Iraqis. Gifts must not only be given, they must also be received…. For three and a half years, the Iraqis have been free people. What have they done with their freedom?…After we invaded Iraq, Iraq invaded itself.”

And here’s a passage from Robin:

According to the New York Times columnist David Brooks, after the fall of Saddam the Iraqis succumbed to their native ‘demons: greed, blood lust and a mind-boggling unwillingness to compromise…even in the face of self-immolation’. Liberal hawks such as Leon Wieseltier believe much the same thing: “The security situation is at bottom the social-cultural situation. It seems increasingly clear to me that the blame for the violence in Iraq, and for its frenzied recoil from what Fouad Ajami hopefully called ‘the foreigner’s gift’, belongs to the Iraqis. Gifts must not be only given, they must also be received…. For three and a half years, the Iraqis have been a free people. What have they done with their freedom?… After we invaded Iraq, Iraq invaded itself.”

At first, Robin notes, “I dismissed it as a single instance of carelessness. Then I found another . . .”

It’s nice to know that Jacob Heilbrunn is seamless in his character: “a snapper up of unconsidered trifles,” like Autolycus in A Winter’s Tale (though without the charm), as well as all the rest of it. Smarmy. Unpleasant. Thoroughly discreditable.