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To Criticize the Critic

By Charles O'Brien

“Thank you, Doctor.”
- Johnny Carson

Tom Hale’s measured praise of First of the Year [http://www.democratiya.com/review.asp?reviews_id=257] ends up as a funeral oration for the paper.

Not so fast.

His review has a simple structure. First of the Month set out to be a (the?) new Partisan Review; between 9/11 and Iraq, it lost its way hopelessly; the major journalistic organs of liberalism now stand vindicated.

Let’s take it point by point:

Hale’s Partisan Review thread is the least predictable of the three, but the most tiresome. On page 1 of the collection, DeMott quotes the Levine Partisan Review reference that appears in Hales’s review. But DeMott immediately goes on:

Partisan Review hadn’t folded yet, so Levine wasn’t rubbing it in.

DeMott is not here accepting the comparison, much less embracing it. He’s not even letting himself be irritated by it. Levine’s contributions have been welcome, but he’s not quite at the core of the magazine. (Poets like Alison Stone and Natalie Estrellita are more heartily First-ish.) A few years back, after I ventured some mild criticism of E.L. Doctorow, Levine declared that he’d like to kick me in the balls. For this editor, at least, he is not a spokesperson.

Ellen Willis’ critique of the film Arguing the World, is not very typical of the paper either. If the 60’s guessed that lessons learned in the 30’s did not set the limits of what might be known, the 60’s own lessons learned were entitled to no greater reverence.

But Levine and Willis are all the license Hall needs to run with the Partisan argument. First is Partisan Review. It doesn’t look like a new Partisan Review. But it couldn’t. But it really is. Enough, no more! If you want a combination of anti-Stalinism and high modernism, try The New Criterion. Riffle through an old issue of Partisan Review, and you will be touching people on whom nothing is lost. Down here, lots just bounces off.1

Anything like an aspiration to be the new New York intellectuals is totally absent from the paper As for any “oedipal” feelings, they’re not there either (and First is not big on Freudian terminology in general). If there are parts of New York that are more prominent in the paper, it is only as facts of geography, not in opposition to an earlier magazine. The line about Columbia University and Rikers comes from a very kind but somewhat misleading early review of First of the Month. It is true that one of the paper’s editors lives near Columbia University, the Columbia Community, so to call it, contributes nothing to the paper. As to Rikers, the extent of our readership there was always exaggerated. Despite Benj DeMott’s dervish-like skills at distribution, Rikers was always a bridge too far, literally a stone wall. And since First started, a number of publications have appeared aimed squarely at that audience Don Diva, FEDS (Finally, Every Dimension of the Streets), FELON (Finally, Every Level of the Neighborhoods), and somewhat less directly Fish n Grits. To these interventions, we happily surrender the field.

Nathan Hale regretted that he had but one life to give for his country. Tom Hale doesn’t mind devoting a few years to transnational governance.2 First of the Month, always the misbegotten, he says, finally came to grief on the shoals of Iraq. And here, not only does Hale get everything wrong, he gets important things wrong. Hale, of course, opposed the war in Iraq. It’s part of the job description. I look at Iraq today – am I supposed to think I was wrong? And I am even more incredulous today at the arguments that were advanced then against the war: blood for oil; Bush’s oedipal tizzies; Cheney’s financial interests; Likud’s machinations. It is disturbing to realize that some of the people who said these things actually believed them.

Hale singles out three contributors for comment. Start with Benj DeMott. DeMott, he says, has “admit[ted] his own error” in opposing the war. That’s not what DeMott says. DeMott came late to the ball, and his support for the war came with all kinds of qualifications. But Hale will look in vain for any “admission.”

Then there’s me. Hale quotes the “mad dog” line and says it sounds like Irving Kristol. It shouldn’t. It’s a recasting, from the left, of Naipaul’s, “Hate oppression; fear the oppressed.” He also refers to my “war cry.” I’m not sure how to take that. If he means that my position was an emotional reaction wrung from me, I disagree. Pages of argument went before the sentences he quotes. If he means that it was a cry directed at others, well, yes. But to read him, I could have saved my breath. Hale throws the “neo-cons” at me. The term is so debased that to see it almost guarantees that there is no thought behind it. I won’t rehash all the old arguments (e.g. regime change in Iraq was the official policy of the neo-liberal Clinton administration), but I will revisit two. First, Iraq was a war that was denounced by some on the right as a “Bolshevik" or “Trotskyite” war. How much con could there have been in it? Second, I invoked Churchill a number of times in various articles. It was not that Churchill was an icon to me. But if we are looking for a strong, principled, consistent, effectual, early opponent of German fascism, none of the halfway plausible aspirants with proper left-wing credentials quite fits the bill. Churchill -- Tory, imperialist, vaguely aristocratic -- turned out to be Hitler’s worst enemy. A self-satisfied Tom Hale says that neo-cons “led the charge.” For sure, he didn’t.

Hale praises Charles Keil for his insightfulness. He has done Keil no favors. Look at how Keil breaks down the two sides: there are the “peacelovers” and the “warmongers.” This is not somebody who has abandoned the debate. He never entered it. Keil writes: “Arguing with people who want to spin rationalizations for the insanity of war makes no sense to me.” Two points: first, despite the phrase, “insanity of war,” and Hale’s easy use of the word “pacifist,” Keil had not long before written at length in support of the Kosovo war. Second, arguing makes no sense to him? If you won’t shoot people, talk is what you have. And it is this “poignant” sentiment that, according to Hale, shows up everything written in defense of the Iraq war. And Hale neglects to point out that Keil was objecting, in “Waging Peace,” in 2001, not to the war in Iraq, but to any military response, in Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

And Hale is wrong about the debate. He criticizes DeMott’s “rather self-aggrandizing claim.” “Plenty of detailed debate preceded the Iraq war in publications across the ideological spectrum,” he writes. Well, no. In The New York Review of Books, for instance, or the Nation? Even the New York Times, a general services daily, while necessarily not a monolith, decidedly had a line from early on. If a long article appeared in the New Yorker dealing with the war (or related subjects), it was a pretty safe bet where it would come down. In First that was (and is) not true. In 2004, both the New York Review and First ran symposiums on the election, about 20 participants in each. The New York Review's contributors were unanimously, and predictably, for John Kerry. First’s contributors, unsurprisingly, came out for Kerry, but the longest and most prominently featured contribution was an endorsement of George W. Bush.3 Hale writes, “We may have been wrong, DeMott admits, but at least we were open to debate.” But again, DeMott “admits” no such thing and that “at least” is a fantastic impertinence. He goes on: “It is one thing to console oneself with this idea; quite another to make it an editorial policy.” Console oneself! I’m sorry for your trouble, he says, as if he knew what trouble was. And openness to debate is not the only possible editorial policy, but it is surely not just “quite another thing.” Hale lectures, “The purpose of open debate [!] is not to embrace all views at all times [as if anyone has ever said that], but rather to allow the more intelligent position to win out.” Hales’ phraseology is important here. Telos is an admirable magazine. Over the years, its writers have thrashed out one question after another, each debate running through a few issues. Eventually, some consensus will win out. First has been, to my taste, less good. A lot of the “lefter” opinions, e.g. Tim Shorrock's, have served only for a pointless balance. They betray a hankering after respectability. Look again at Hale’s sentence. He tells us what the “purpose” of debate is. Shouldn’t that really read “the hoped-for result of debate?” “Purpose” suggest that there was always only one admissible right answer, and that is Hale’s mind-set. And his phrase, “the most intelligent position,” is revealing. Most people would have said the best or the truest. Not the soon-to-be Dr. Hale: what counts for him is the most acceptable position. And there, time and again, we have been seriously wanting.

An interesting failure, then, and the failure is confirmed, by our ceasing to exist. Only – we haven’t ceased, and even his update gets it wrong. Being rid of us could only enhance the status of those organs of bourgeois opinion, the Nation, the The New York Review, the New York Times. The right opinions will not be challenged, even if they are. The real scandal of the past few years has not been, as, say, Fox News would have it, that the Times sounds just like the “far left.” It is that what sees itself as the left sounds just like the Times. Score one for the phrase “Vichy Left.” But for Tom Hale, to whom Michel Louis is dearer than Louise Michel, there is no scandal. His beacons of enlightenment burn bright as ever. All's right in his world. I could remind him that the Times has these past few years had more than its share of difficulties. I could tell him not to look back, but there’s no chance he would. If he thinks we’re history, I’d like to think so, too.

We wouldn't mean the same thing, at all.


1 From the time the paper was first discussed, before the first issue, until the day I read Hale's review, Partisan Review never occurred to me as a model. Early on, fanzines, despite Hale's guess, were very much on my mind. What I, for one, was hoping for was an improbable amalgam of Telos, an Phoblactht, and the Situationist International's magazine. The paper is, to some extent, an offshoot of the arts section of the lamented City Sun. And it often looks like the East Village Other or the Rat. But Partisan Review? It's Hale's piece and he's entitled to his structural devices. But nobody should think he's talking about us.

2 Hale's byline identifies him as "Executive Editor of the Encyclopdia of Transnational Governance Innovation." It sounds like a dreamy combination of one of Commander Bond's weaker cover stories and the real identity of one of his Blofeldian antagonists. What a book that'd make? Tom Hale, though, won't write it.

3 Disclosure: I wrote it. Further disclosure: I don't take it back.

From April, 2009

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