Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 9, 2009

George Packer-Mark Danner pissing contest

Filed under: cruise missile left — louisproyect @ 7:30 pm

George Packer

Mark Danner

Before getting into the details of this feud between two very unsavory characters taking place in the Sunday NY Times Book Review, it would be useful to put that section of the paper into some kind of context. For years now, it has been the practice of the Sunday review to assign right-leaning characters to write hostile reviews of left-leaning authors, while at the same time it will never, for example, invite a Noam Chomsky to review a Paul Berman book.

The book review section exists as a kind of rightist enclave at the Times, drawing inspiration ideologically from the neoliberal New Republic and neoconservative National Review in roughly equal parts. The current editor is Sam Tannenhaus, who wrote an admiring biography of the McCarthyite stool pigeon Whittaker Chambers. He is now at work on a new biography of the reptilian William F. Buckley. Before Tannenhaus, the review was edited by Mitchel Levitas, the son of Sol Levitas who was editor of the New Leader, a magazine that accepted funding from the CIA.

Levitas, a Russian emigrant and Menshevik, apparently had a big influence on his son who accepted a post on the board of directors of the Tamiment Library at NYU, a first-rate repository of socialist and labor publications. Ostensibly, his tepid social democratic beliefs had recommended him to NYU. But when the Tamiment displayed some sympathy and support for the reputation of Alger Hiss, Levitas blew a gasket, stating: “To have the Hiss banner flown from the Tamiment flagstaff was just an insult.” It was of course a logical transition from bashing Hiss to writing valentines to Whittaker Chambers.

Packer’s review of Danner’s 626 page “Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War” appeared in the October 18th Book Review. Here are a few paragraphs that went for the jugular:

Untethering his essayistic ambitions from ground-level journalism does not serve Danner well. A tendency toward inflated writing and overstatement starts to appear: there are too many self­dramatizing turns of phrase, like “The first time I was killed, or nearly so”; too many moments when the writer, confronted with a destroyed city or a bloody mess of dismembered bodies, finds George F. Kennan or Henry James coming to mind.

These literary affectations are heightened by an air of seeing through everything, conveyed in a heavy reliance on scare quotes and knowing titles like “The Real Election” and “Abu Ghraib: Hidden in Plain Sight.” When Haitians lined up to vote amid violence in 1987, Danner interviewed their political leaders and admired their courage; when Iraqis did the same in 2005, he went looking for “the desired symbolic justifications, the capstone in the narrative building already under construction that day.” Danner watches human struggle and misery at such a remove that he can’t resist taking issue with a young Kosovar woman who is quoted in a news article comparing her family’s expulsion from Pristina with the experiences of the Jews in World War II. “Such drawing of half-century-old parallels, of the parallel, derives in fact from a failure of memory,” Danner intones. “How much more comfortable to invoke Europe in the 1940s than Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s.” Not as comfortable as condescending to a refugee.

This superior stance doesn’t flag even when Danner contradicts himself. He switches, without explanation or loss of confidence, from criticizing to endorsing the first President Bush’s refusal to remove Saddam Hussein at the end of the gulf war; he sounds just as assured deploring the Powell doctrine as enshrining it. Still, when a Red Cross report on torture by the Bush administration falls into Danner’s hands, the result is one of the book’s best essays. A reporter again, with a great find, he can stop pumping up his prose, and the article achieves a powerful equilibrium between fact and voice.

Keep in mind that George Packer was one of a group of high-profile journalists and pseudo-intellectuals of the “left” who beat the war drums to invade Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11. In 2005, Packer wrote “The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq”, a book that signaled his departure from the pro-war crowd, like a rat deserting a sinking ship. Even as it drew the ineluctable conclusion that the war had been a disaster, it still reserved plenty of venom toward the antiwar movement that Packer had described in the NY Times in December 2002 as follows:

On Oct. 26, tens of thousands of people turned out in San Francisco, Washington and other cities to protest against a war. Other demonstrations are planned for Jan. 18 and 19. By then an invasion could be under way, and if it gets bogged down around Baghdad with heavy American and Iraqi civilian casualties, or if it sets off a chain reaction of regional conflicts, antiwar protests could grow. But this movement has a serious liability, one that will just about guarantee its impotence: it’s controlled by the furthest reaches of the American left. Speakers at the demonstrations voice unnuanced slogans like ”No Sanctions, No Bombing” and ”No Blood for Oil.” As for what should be done to keep this mass murderer and his weapons in check, they have nothing to say at all. This is not a constructive liberal antiwar movement.

It is difficult to figure out why Packer worked himself into such a venomous state, like a Black Mamba snake on steroids, over Danner’s journalism. Since both are establishment figures of the liberal left, Packer on its right extreme and Danner angling to maintain his position on its left flank, you wonder why Packer is given the Noam Chomsky treatment. My guess is that these kinds of big-shot journalists are in some kind of turf battle over who is the most authentic reporter from the hot spots of the world. Keep in mind that Packer spent a fair amount of time in Iraq stalking about in his safari cap, combat vest and cargo pants. How dare Danner usurp his place as interpreter of native grievances?

Danner’s reply to Packer’s review appeared in yesterday’s book review. It breaks all records for length, as far as I can tell. It begins by calling attention to Packer’s hawkish ways:

Controversies flicker past so quickly in our voracious culture that we assume once the shouting has died away the disputes have been put to rest — while beneath the surface, the worst live on. The debate over whether to launch a war against Iraq was one such, and I am afraid the bitterness lingering from it hovers like an invisible toxic cloud over George Packer’s review of my book, “Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War” (Oct. 18).

I strongly believed — as I first argued to George, my old New Yorker colleague and friend, in a discussion he and I had at a meeting of a small reading group to which we both belonged in January 2003, shortly before the war — that the invasion would be a catastrophic mistake that would bring in its wake a great deal of sectarian violence and score-­settling. Packer, an ardent supporter of going to war in Iraq, argued that the United States should invade and occupy the country for humanitarian reasons. As the war ground on, he and I rejoined the debate intermittently in a number of forums.

Danner is particularly pained since—after all—he and Packer do see eye to eye on the number one litmus test for NY Review of Books type liberals: the Balkan wars. Danner remonstrates with Packer:

All this is a pity, for Packer and I have a disagreement about America’s war in Iraq that is real and that might have been honestly disclosed and fairly discussed. He comes closest to doing this in his final paragraph, where he begins: “What about Bosnia? This is the war that leads Danner into unacknowledged tangles and reveals the disconnection at the heart of his work.” A more direct way to put this is that George and I both thought the United States should intervene in Bosnia but that I disagreed with him when he argued that our country should invade and occupy Iraq.

There is no “unacknowledged tangle” here. In Bosnia, the United States should have acted to stop genocide, which I witnessed and reported on and which was going on, and on, even while American warplanes patrolled overhead and United States intelligence agencies recorded the “number liquidated” in Serb concentration camps. In Iraq in 2003, there was an autocratic government but no genocide. Indeed, when Saddam Hussein’s army had engaged in mass killing — against the Kurds in 1989 and against the Shiites in 1991 — American officials, who had been supplying Saddam with critical intelligence in 1989 and who commanded a United States Army in Iraq in 1991, had stood aside and done and said nothing.

This is really rich. Mark Danner, Mr. Peace Advocate who goes on Democracy Now and publishes in various leftwing forums like the very worthy Tomdispatch.com, is not opposed to American imperialism in principle but only where it is misplaced. In Bosnia, the U.S. should have “acted”, which meant that it had the right to unleash its bombers on a wicked enemy, just as is taking place in Afghanistan and Pakistan today.

Today’s Counterpunch has a terrific article on how Bard College victimized Joel Kovel for his anti-Zionist views. Written by John Halle, who teaches music theory there, it sizes up the faculty most accurately, including Mark Danner who is the Henry Luce Professor of Human Rights, along with fellow NY Review of Books contributor Ian Buruma who once wrote an article explaining suicide bombing in Israel as an act of sexual frustration (no, I am not joking.)

Now it should be understood that before Kovel was given the boot, he was removed as Alger Hiss Professor. His replacement was Jonathan Brent, who Halle describes as a “historian whose work provides a defense of, and has been celebrated by those embracing, the most strident varieties of cold war anti-communism.” This is like Reagan putting an energy industry hack like James A. Watt in charge of the Department of the Interior. Who ever said that college President Botstein lacked imagination and a sense of mischief?

But one has to admit that Danner is a perfect choice for an endowed chair in the name of Henry Luce. Luce founded Time Magazine in 1923 and was one of the Republican Party’s most influential leaders. Later on he launched Fortune and Life magazines.

He was also a principal player in the China Lobby that sought to overthrow Communist rule either through subversion or all-out war. His wife Clare Booth Luce was even more reactionary than him and was a major influence on Margaret Thatcher and all the dingbats of today, from Ann Coulter to Laura Ingraham.

He penned an article in 1941 titled “The American Century”, which David Harvey once described as referring to power being global and universal rather than territorially specific. In other words, Luce preferred to talk of an American century rather than an empire even though they amounted to the same thing.

It would be fitting to conclude this piece with an excerpt from CLR James’s 1948 article “Henry Luce and Karl Marx”, something that should demarcate us from the George Packers and Mark Danners of the world. You will note that many of the same anxieties being felt today were around back then, as should be expected from a social system in perpetual crisis:

The Luce publications, Life in particular, constantly betray a dangerous irritation with the American people for refusing to recognize the benefits which capitalism is showering upon them. On Feb, 3, 1947 Life published an editorial on Joshua L. Liebman’s Peace of Mind. Why, it asks, does this book continue in the list of best-sellers? We won the war,the boys are mostly home, everybody has a job. “Yet at one end of the scale citizens are moaning the blues, while at the other end they are reclining on the psychoanalyst’s couch recounting their lives and their loves.”

Life is angry and comes to the conclusion “that what this country really wants is a good kick in the pants.” The people, you see, cannot understand how wrong Marx is Life recommends as an antidote the power of God and the gospels of Jesus. The cure is not interesting – but the diagnosis of the United States is: “A nation so rich in blessings yet gripped with a psychic unhappiness…” Marx wrote many brilliant pages on the “psychic unhappiness” of modern nations. Only he rooted this unhappiness very firmly in the class conflicts and bankruptcy of capitalist society.

But who teaches the American people to doubt capitalism? High on the list are the Luce publications themselves. A March 18, 1948 Life editorial on the Marshall Plan ends: “Let us remember that this is a capitalistic country, that capitalism is neither doomed nor a thing to be ashamed of …”

It appears that the millions who read Life have to be continually reinsured about capitalism and its blessings. Is there then some connection between capitalism and their “psychic unhappiness”? Let us see.

On June 2, 1947 the subtitle of an editorial on the State of the Nation says: “It is Generally OK Don’t let Anybody tell you differently.” But the editorial itself belies the polemical confidence of the title. Life repeats the story of the waitress who plastered the face of her boss with a chocolate pie. It notes that domestic servants, garage mechanics, telephone operators, bell-hops seem to dislike their jobs more obviously than they used to. Is this perhaps “a general sense of frustration” which stems from the high cost of living and expresses itself in lower standards of courtesy? The lightness of tone stops as the editorial ends.

It is fitting and proper for Americans to have a certain amount of uncertainty as they take the stage as protagonists in one of the world’s most crucial epochs. But a people which dreams up more things, makes more things and gives away more things, than any other in history … need not overburden itself with worry and self-doubt.

3 Comments »

  1. How disgusting. Not your article, which is well done (I love that CLR James quote!) but rather the hideously myopic nature of the quarrell.

    It reminds me of the so-called political rift between the Hawks & the Doves over the Nicaraguan Revolution. At one time when the Nicaraguans were contemplating getting a shipment of French fighter jets to defend themselves from Contra attacks, the French were ultimately so harrassed by the Pentagon that the Nicaraguan government turned next to the Soviets to buy the jets. Naturally the phrase “Soviet-supplied Sandinista’s” sounded much better to the Pentagon’s propagandists than “French-supplied Sandinistas.”

    So the Hawks argued that Managua ought to be immediately bombed for daring to even think of buying fighters to defend itself against Contra attacks (originating from bases in Honduras). But the Doves, lead at the time by people like Democratic candidate Paul Tsongas, said no, we ought to wait until the Sandinistas actually take delivery of the fighters — then bomb them.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 9, 2009 @ 11:59 pm

  2. “Henry Luce Professor of Human Rights”

    I am about to get seriously ill.

    Comment by The Spanish Prisoner — November 10, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

  3. […] professor noted for his gung-ho support for bombing the Serbs to oblivion. I discussed their feud here. All of these characters—Danner, Berman, Buruma, Hitchens, Packer—share a belief that the U.S. […]

    Pingback by The Paul Berman-Ian Buruma feud « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — May 3, 2010 @ 6:28 pm


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: