Skimming through Michael Berube’s newly published Eustonesque manifesto “The Left at War“, I stumbled across a reference to yours truly in chapter one. The good professor grouped me with 9/11 truthers and Bob Avakian, as people not worth his while to attack. The book, you see, was going after bigger game, like Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman and other enemies of humane, liberal values. It appears that I didn’t rate, because I was just an Internet phenomenon:
Likewise, if I wanted to engage with the divagations [a fancy word for ramblings] of the radical left online, I would include figures like Louis Proyect, a Columbia University computer programmer whose name is well known to far-left listservs and blogs, and who is capable of writing things like, “To the credit of the late Slobodan Milosevic and to Saddam Hussein, who now is on trial for his life in another kangaroo court, they never bowed down. In life and in death, these imperfect men will always remind us of the need to resist the injustice perpetrated by states acting out of perfect evil. “
The words were my conclusion to an article in Swans titled The Demonization And Death Of Slobodan Milosevic that I certainly stand by. In keeping with this put-down and subsequent railings against Chomsky, Edward Herman and Diana Johnstone, you will not find any substance to Berube’s complaint, which usually takes the form of a sputtering “how dare they!” Since so much of the book is a diatribe against positions the left took on Yugoslavia, one would hope that the good professor might have taken the trouble to explain how critics of NATO’s war were wrong either on the facts or logic. But such matters do not interest him. He is much more at home in the ethereal realm of morality and global governance pirouetting with the angels.
I once posed the question to Berube on his blog as to what scholarly literature he had read on Yugoslavia. It drew a blank. His main interest is not in history, economics, or anything remotely related to a class analysis. He is a cultural studies professor by trade and heavily invested in theory, not the mundane world of facts and data. So much so that the book is largely devoted to praising Stuart Hall as the answer to all the wicked leftists who disagree with him on Yugoslavia. Yes, I know the connection is tenuous at best but I will do my best to explain how the good professor thinks, an onerous task I must admit.
I am not sure when I first stumbled across Berube’s writings, but my first response to him was in an article titled “Noam Chomsky and his Critics“, written on August 15, 2002. It was at a time when Chomsky was a lightning rod for the Eric Altermans and Christopher Hitchens of the world. They were outraged that he was not ready to jump on George W. Bush’s bandwagon, having the temerity to characterize American foreign policy as criminally brutal. In those days, people like Todd Gitlin were writing articles about the need to fly the American flag so you can imagine how angry he made the cruise missile left.
This is how I summed up Berube in that article:
For some on the postmodernist left, Chomsky has also become objectionable. Michael Berube, a commentator on the arts and society, feels that “the Chomskian left has consigned itself to the dustbin of history.” In accounting for the split between the “Chomskian left” and “the Hitchens left,” Berube surmises that “the simple fact that bombs were dropping” might have something to do with it. He writes:
For U.S. leftists schooled in the lessons of Cambodia, Libya, and the School of the Americas, all U.S. bombing actions are suspect: they are announced by cadaverous white guys with bad hair, they are covered by seven cable channels competing with one another for the catchiest “New War” slogan and Emmy awards for creative flag display, and they invariably kill civilians, the poor, the wretched, the disabled. Surely, there is much to hate about any bombing campaign.
Dispensing with the relativism and playful irony that characterizes the postmodernist left, Berube reminds his readers that war is a serious business:
Yet who would deny that a nation, once attacked, has the right to respond with military force, and who seriously believes that anyone could undertake any “nation-building” enterprise in Afghanistan without driving the Taliban from power first?
While most of Berube’s book is a sustained if rather flaccid attack on what he calls the “Manichean left”, he does try to distinguish himself from Hitchens, George Packer, Kenan Makiya, Paul Berman and other supporters of the war in Iraq. Berube is aggravated that they couldn’t figure out the difference between Serbia and Afghanistan on one hand and Iraq on the other. It was okay, if not essential, to bomb the former countries into submission while only using economic sanctions and flyovers against the latter.
You can read chapter 3 of Berube’s book, titled “Iraq: the Hard Road to Debacle”, in its entirety on Scribd.com. It is replete with Berube’s trademark casuistry. He supported the war in Afghanistan but only if it was restricted to an assault on the al-Qaeda’s base in Tora Bora but not if would become what it actually became, an 8-year humanitarian disaster for the Afghan people. By analogy, he describes WWII as a good war, even if it involved bad decisions such as the bombing of Dresden. He wants to distinguish himself from the Pentagon generals even if they are the only conceivable agency to rid the world of evils such as al-Qaeda and Slobodan Milosevic. Perhaps the world would be better off if the military was run by cultural studies professors like Berube, but then again his role is not to actually kill people but to dream up sophisticated rationales for such acts.
In the section of chapter 3 titled “The Balkanized Left”, Berube cites Ian Williams in favor of NATO intervention without showing the slightest evidence that he has considered arguments and facts to the contrary. For example, Williams asserts that the U.S. was “dragged unwillingly” into the war by Europeans.
David Gibbs, the author of “First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia“ sees things differently:
Deliberate Force was technically a multinational NATO campaign, but it was conceived and conducted largely by the United States. Shortly before the strikes were launched, US officials met with their European counterparts and, in essence, demanded their support. According to Chollet, who interviewed many key figures: “The Americans would go to explain what they were doing, not ask for permission. The message would be ‘part invitation, part ultimatum.’” Though European leaders resented this US diktat, they reluctantly went along with the plan. After the Srebrenica massacre, the Europeans were under pressure to take action, and they did not wish to appear obstructionist. NATO member states thus supported Operation Deliberate Force.
Now this is the only way to develop an analysis of Yugoslavia, namely through a painstaking examination of scholarly material. Gibbs, a political science professor at the U. of Arizona, has a bibliography that includes hundreds of articles and dozens of books. This is how serious policy analysts do their work. Berube, a flyweight when it comes to Balkans scholarship, is content to cite Williams, a journalist whose last book was on rum.
After favoring his reader with heavy doses of Ian Williams, Berube follows up with additional swatches lifted from a hostile review of Chomsky’s “The New Military Humanism” by Adrian Hastings, a Catholic theologian and long-time advocate of war on the dastardly Serbs.
One imagines that if Berube was charged with the assignment to write his own critique of Chomsky, Herman or Diana Johnstone without relying on such massive quote-mongering, his poor head might explode.
After he has exhausted all the quotes on Yugoslavia he can muster, Berube turns his attention to Iraq, a war that he opposed but with far less fervor than his opposition to the movement that emerged against it. He spends 12 pages in chapter 3 fulminating against the Workers World Party and the ANSWER coalition in a section titled “Dirty Fucking Hippies”. His prose takes on an almost hallucinatory quality as he pulls out all the stops: “ultraleftist thugs”, “neo-Stalinist sectarian group”, “support of Kim Jong-Il” and all the rest of the epithets that you might have read in the Washington Post or other newspapers catering to the anti-Communist prejudices of its inside-the-beltway readers.
Berube is spitting mad that the ANSWER coalition made so much headway, at least in the early days, when everybody knows that his own ideas and that of other liberal professors like Michael Walzer and Todd Gitlin are just so much smarter. You’ll never find someone like Michael Berube finding a kind word to say about North Korea, to be sure.
But you will never find someone like Michael Berube actually doing the dirty work that is required to get tens or hundreds of thousands of people to demonstrate in Washington. In a way, he reminds me of a virgin writing a sex advice column. He has all sorts of ideas what a good position might be, but has never gotten around to actually trying it out.
He would not have time in his busy schedule to roll up his sleeves and organize like-minded people to build a coalition conforming to his own ideals. If you read his blog, you will learn that when he is not writing articles on cultural theory or redbaiting the left, he is playing hockey or the drums. In other words, he is not actually sufficiently motivated to put his crappy politics into action, the way that a serious political person might. Fundamentally, we are dealing with a dilettante who enjoys shitting on people whose views he disagrees with. Like Walter Mitty, he must have fantasies about leading people into a more just world but like most liberal intellectuals he does not bother since the Democratic Party does all the work that is necessary to rout the Taliban and al-Qaeda. After all, the Obama administration that Berube genuflects to has all the guns and money it needs to kill Afghans. Why would they require any kind of volunteer activism from a college professor who has better things to do with his spare time?