Friday, October 3, 2014

Would Obama have stood up to Mrs. Longworth? Too soon to tell.

City Lights, 1931.
Shorter David Brooks, "The Problem with Pragmatism", New York Times, October 3 2014:
Reading that old Lewis Mumford article in The New Republic makes me realize how those liberal pragmatists today are just the same as they were in 1940, when Mumford had to call them out for failing to join in the struggle against the Soviet Union.
He literally does that! As Aaron Barlow has pointed out in Academe Blog, and as should be obvious anyway, because it was 1940, Mumford's essay (reprinted as part of a celebration of TNR's centenary this year) urged liberals, as you would expect, to stand in opposition to the Soviet Union and Germany, then allies under the Molotov-Ribbentropp pact. Brooks amazingly turns this upside down by leaving the Germany part out:
Those who threaten civilization — Stalin then, Putin and ISIS now — are driven by moral zealotry and animal imperatives. 
Really? Whose history of World War II is that you're working with? And while you're up, could you please let me know what "moral zealotry and animal imperatives" are when they're a couple?

It's pretty bizarre, though, to see Brooks appealing to the very radical Lewis Mumford as an authority here. I suppose he has no idea who Mumford was. I can't imagine the prophet of the Bobos, the sweet singer of Kotkinism, being altogether comfortable with the lover of cities who said of the suburbs in 1961,
In the mass movement into the suburban areas a new kind of community was produced, which caricatured both the historic city and the archetypal suburban refuge: a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold, manufactured in the central metropolis. Thus the ultimate effect of the suburban escape in our time is, ironically, a low-grade uniform environment from which escape is impossible.
It occurred to me to wonder what Mumford meant by the "liberal pragmatists" who were failing to make a stand against the totalitarians. Brooks seems to think that liberals in 1940 were opposed to the prospect of war in general—
Mumford’s nominal subject was his fellow liberals’ tendency, in 1940, to hang back in the central conflict of the age, the fight against totalitarianism. 
—but that's pretty much off the historical wall (although leftwards from the liberals, many Communists and their friends, shamefully, did obey orders from Moscow to lay off Hitler until Germany broke the pact and invaded Russia in June 1941, but very many did not).

If I were using the term "pragmatic liberal" for those days I'd be thinking philosophically above all of the philosopher John Dewey, who certainly did not fail in that respect, but came out strong against fascism and Stalinism both, and politically of that very pragmatic liberal Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Mumford himself seems to have disliked both Dewey and the term but was more of a pragmatist than he realized); and for the early 21st century I'd use it for Barack Obama.

Have to say I thought war opponents ca. 1940 were not liberals at all, but either crypto-fascists like Charles Lindbergh or serious pacifists, mostly religious. But it seems I was wrong there: the movement to stop America from entering the war began with a socialist-liberal organization led by Norman Thomas, the Keep America Out of War Congress founded in 1938, and ended up in the America First Committee in a very big tent in which a number of prominent, but not mainstream liberals played a fairly confusing role, as seen in David Gordon's 2003 account:
Progressive senators [such as Gerald Nye of North Dakota, Burton Wheeler of Montana, Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, George Norris of Nebraska, and Henrick Shipstead of Minnesota] may have helped  the Committee, but its most important supporters were a core group of Republican Chicago businessmen.  Chief among them was General Robert Wood, CEO of Sears, Roebuck.... Like Nye, Wood had originally supported some of Roosevelt’s policies, including the AAA, the SEC and Social Security.  But he had rebelled against excessive taxation that he believed was undermining capitalism. Other Chicago businessmen, such as meat packers Jay Hormel and Philip Swift, and William J. Grace, head of one of Chicago’s largest investment firms, had never supported the president.  All became key Committee members.  Colonel Robert J. McCormick, owner of the Chicago Tribune, was the most influential of all.  A passionate Roosevelt hater and Anglophobe, his paper became an important disseminator of AFC propaganda.
Ultimately, the Committee’s executive board contained a more diverse group  than even Progressives and Republicans.  Among them were Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Eddie Rickenbacker, Kathleen Norris, the popular novelist, Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, Lillian Gish, and, for a time, Henry Ford.  The leadership of the New York branch was even more diverse, with Norman Thomas and Charles A. Beard working with Herbert Hoover and Joseph Patterson, conservative publisher of the New York Daily News. Clearly, the anti-war movement won the support of many humanitarians and pacifists, as well as others inspired by partisan politics, provincialism and bigotry.
The leaders of the AFC had different political beliefs, but once they decided to work together, they began to sound remarkably alike.  Like their supporters in Congress, many believed war hysteria was being created to distract the public from the failures of the New Deal.  The second collapse of the economy in 1937, widely regarded as the “Roosevelt depression,” had certainly hurt the president.  His prestige was at its lowest during the early part of 1939.  Precedent, as well as his failed economic record, had suggested that his second term would be his last.  Then came the war crisis, and the revival of his fortunes.  Many believed, in the words of John Flynn, that Roosevelt wanted war because he found it a “glorious, magnificent escape from all the insoluble problems of America.”
What the America Firsters shared, then, was a hatred of FDR and his crappy old New Deal, without any common view of what it was they didn't like about it. The liberals among them, though, were "pragmatic" only in the sense that Mumford used the word as a term of abuse. That is, they weren't pragmatic.

With their anger at Roosevelt for not being enough of a leftist, they would qualify nowadays as Green Lanternists, and I suppose in that sense there really is a bit of an analogy between them and the emoprogs of the antiwar movement of today, if it actually exists, and its alliance with the libertarians, if it has one (it seems to me that the libertarians are mostly running away from the antiwar label as fast as they can, with Rand Paul in the lead). But I don't think Brooks is talking about them.

In his own analogy, the part of the united Lillian Gish and Charles Beard is played by President Obama himself, a liberal pragmatist in a normal sense, for being willing to go to war but only a little bit, not passionately enough, because Brooks is now partying like it's 2003 getting his war hard-on, throwing all that cute diffidence and humility to the wind.

What happened to all the Burkean modesty and restraint, Brooksy? Burke too much of a liberal pragmatist for you, these days? The idea that Obama is to be condemned because he isn't warlike enough for old Lewis Mumford is pretty weird, since it's hard to imagine that an Obama transplanted into 1940 would be particularly less bloodthirsty than Mumford was. Where the analogy totally fails, of course, is in seeing any resemblance whatsoever between the world situations now and then, because Putin is not Stalin (he's more Franco, in my view), and Caliph al-Baghdadi isn't Hitler, and Obama is definitely not Senator La Follette, and David Brooks is sure as hell not Lewis Mumford.

I wouldn't mind seeing Obama scolded gently for lacking Mumford's environmental consciousness, or for his un-Mumfordian faith in technology, or for his anti-Mumfordian failure to reduce the nuclear arsenal, but that Mumford, the real and important one, would make Brooks recoil in horror—"Get thee behind me, hippy!"

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