“First” Confession

A few weeks ago Michael Berube emailed me evidence I’d made a mistake in my foreword to First of the Year: 2010. I’d brought up an unflattering story about Paul Berman that Berube had touched on in his book, The Left at War, and I’d asserted (in a parenthesis) Berube had been unaware Berman had rebutted that rumor. I was wrong. Berube included one of Berman’s rebuttals in The Left at War’s end notes. I admitted my error – “You got me.” – in an email to Berube and noted circumstances that contributed to my false impression he’d left Berman’s side of the story out of The Left at War. But I underscored my mistake was “my bad.” Moving on, I took up my private debate with Berube about his book – a debate Berube had pursued in email exchanges with me last fall.

Berube answered by steering me to his “official response” at Dissent’s website http://www.dissentmagazine.org/atw.php?id=354. “Ordinarily,” he averred, “I wouldn’t take this public.” But he claimed he had to since (1) my false statement about him would live on in a book (2) past friction between him and Berman meant he must ensure history didn’t repeat itself by getting the word out about my mistake.

A glance at Berube’s Dissent post, though, proves he has another motivation. Berube’s out to relitigate our argument over The Left at War and talk up his (2009) book. His opportunism is human but a little cheap since he knows the Berman incident was…incidental to my case against his War. When it comes to the core of that argument, Berube’s M.I.A. He takes a nibble at what I had to say about his book but only to snark at this sentence: “The wackness of The Left at War’s academicism didn’t come home to me until I got into the chapter on British cultural theorist Stuart Hall.” Here’s his gloss – “‘Wackness’ you understand, is a very ‘street;’ term, meant to underscore the academicism of my book.” I took the term not from the street – where “wack” once lived (large) – but from the indie flic, The Wackness, which cops to the gulf between its white middle class characters and black folks who supply them with riffs and reefer.

Berube slipped to ellipses so he could push the meme I’m a wigger poseur. Let’s see what he elided:

Thirty-five years ago, Hall’s Birmingham Center approach to working class youth culture amounted to an act of radical imagination so for a few pages I practiced non-resistance to theory. But then it became plain Berube was going to yammer on about his fellow academic’s Thatcher-era essays and pass right by British polemicists who were much more engaged than Hall in debates over the Iraq war.

I cited work by my favorite (missing) Brit – journalist David Aaronovitch (who wrote honestly in re Operation Iraqi Freedom: “Everybody has been wrong about something.”) But you didn’t need a dog in UK’s Iraq War debates to sense Berube on Hall was too far gone. Listen to Book Forum’s reviewer spell out his “biggest quarrel with The Left at War:”

That concerns chapter 4, when Bérubé announces a move from considering “debates over war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo” to “a reexamination of Stuart Hall’s work on Thatcherism almost a generation ago.” Bérubé himself calls this an “oblique turn”—but I’d say it’s more like a neck-wrenching one.

This guy also picked up on Berube’s…collegial impulse:

On one level Bérubé is merely acknowledging an intellectual debt to Hall, who is best known as a founder of the cultural-studies movement in the academy. Bérubé, after all, teaches cultural studies at Penn State, and The Left at War is part of a cultural-studies series he edits for New York University Press…But I’m not convinced that a re-exploration of a British neo-Marxist flows from a critique of the wacky US left.

Book Forum’s man advised readers to take “important” points Berube scored against the wacky left, “skip” the Hall chapter and “skim the block quotes: that come almost every other page.” I’m not sure who Berube’s block chords were meant for. Maybe I’d be feeling them more if I’d missed First of the Month/Year. But after 9/11 our writers mounted a running critique in real time of (what Charles O’Brien dubbed) the “Vichy Left.” (A term of art that beats the hell out of Berube’s “Manichean Left.”) Try this exemplary essay by Greil Marcus on the Left’s default response to 9/11 http://www.firstofthemonth.org/archives/2002/06/nothing_new_und.html. His decision to publish “Nothing New Under the Sun” in First in 2002 amounted to an act of (provisional) solidarity with O’Brien and Fredric Smoler who’d broken down the same structure of not-knowingness in pieces for our newspaper. Readers familiar with these and other vital First interventions back in that day may grasp why Berube’s formidable quiddities felt dead-on-arrival to me. In my mind, it came down to what’s inspired vs. what’s expired.

I’m reminded just now of the late Ellen Willis who serves in Berube’s War as his Wise Woman counterpart to Stuart Hall. In the spring of 2006, when Ellen was battling the cancer that would take her life later that year, she emailed praise of First’s pieces by O’Brien and Smoler on the Danish Cartoon Controversy. Struck by how much those essays “echoed themes” in what she’d written at the time of the Rushdie affair, she asked if we “might be interested in reprinting the editorial I wrote in the Voice as a historical affirmation of the bad road we are going down…” The piece of the past Ellen thought belonged in First ended up in the “Humanism and Terror” section of First of the Year: 2008. That retrospective collection of First essays had other sections on 9/11 and the Iraq war. There was no “line” –- no time-wasters either. Contributors ranged from “left hawks” to Howard Zinn and Kurt Vonnegut. There were three pieces by Ellen Willis. I wonder if Berube believes his avatar Ellen would’ve taken his version of “the left at war” over First of the Year: 2008’s.

It’s a fair question since Berube has a clue about First. (The proof is in those end notes.) I’d sure like to roll with that Book Forum reviewer who credited him with intellectual “honesty.” Though the title of Berube’s Dissent post, “Packer, Berman, DeMott, O’Brien – and Iraq,” hints at his disingenuous side. Nomen est omen? Berube’s roll call up top (leading off with its two big names) all but trumpets his wish to blow up the significance of my slight. And how did O’Brien get roped into this? He may have rubbed Berube wrong by reviewing The Left at War dismissively in First of the Year: 2010, but he had no part in the mistake Berube busts me for and zip to do with the rumor about Berman. “Iraq,” though, may be the biggest misnomer in the title. There’s not a lot in War that suggests Berube cares much about what’s gone down in that country. Iraq’s Kurds, for example, figure in his “masterful survey of the post-9/11 landscape” (as per NYU press’s catalogue copy) only as counters in someone else’s argument. You wouldn’t know from War the current Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, Barham Salih, went to Rome to make the most compelling moral argument for deposing Saddam (at a meeting of the Socialist International), survived an Ansar al-Islam assassination attempt in Kurdistan before the Iraq war, herded the Peshmerga out of Kirkuk during the invasion, and then became a major player in the messy (and maybe doomed) effort to re-make Iraq into a democratic federation. Instead of doing right by true heroes of “the post-9/11 landscape” like Salih, Berube was locked on establishing his intellectual superiority to blockheads who produced all those block quotes rued by Book Forum’s reviewer. Perhaps War is best understood as a follow-up to the book Berube published in 2006: Rhetorical Occasions.

I can’t say I cracked that text. The cover was a trip though. When I first saw the title I flashed on a sign – FREE LECTURE – that used to hang outside a building near Grand Central. The cover image sent me back around the block to 5th Ave. It featured Berube’s own face (and beardage) looming over a pile of files like a float in the Easter Parade. (The image suggests somebody guessed “cultural studies” as practiced by Berube is a mug’s game.)

I’m tempted to leave it there as Berube’s head is likely to inflate again soon. But that would let me off too easy. I’m afraid my careless shot at Berube isn’t the only thing wrong with my take on the dispute between Berman and New Yorker journalist George Packer. There’s something too insidery about my lines linking that drama to Packer’s fibs about Kanan Makiya. An innocent reader might well assume my angle on Packer’s Iraq-centered journalism was more personal than political. Why should Packer’s issues with his former mentors matter to anyone outside their circle of intimates? My failure to answer that question is of a piece with the parenthetical swipe at Berube that came back to bite me. There’s a heavy lesson I need to learn once and for all: don’t go small.

That lesson, though, (and my confession) doesn’t apply to my first account of how Packer did dirt on Makiya in The Assassins’ Gate [1] – Packer’s book about the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. When Packer made Makiya over into a fatally compromised, willfully beamish creature of pathos – inventing a character that fit the arc of Gate’s narrative but traduced his friend and the historical record – it mattered then and now because he was trashing a national resource. A glance at what Makiya said back in 2002 as he spoke up for Iraq’s democratic opposition (and condemned the “selfishness” of both sides of the pre-war debate over WMD) hints at uses of his moral imagination and democratic instincts:

What the whole phenomenon of the Iraqi opposition represents – inchoate, confused, anarchic, fractured upon itself as it certainly is – what it represents is something NEW in Arab politics. We have here for the first time in modern Arab political discourse – or at least since 1967 – a population that has emerged which is clear that the be-all and end-all of its political world is its own homemade dictatorship. It’s not the national question, not armed struggle, not anti-imperialism, not anti-Zionism – all the usual shibboleths of Arab politics for the past 35 years. This can be encouraged. Or it can be crushed. But think about what it means if you do that. What you’re killing is something that would have extraordinary transformative potential throughout the whole Middle Eastern region.

Makiya should be one of the men and woman who help Americans make up our minds about what’s going on in the Middle East. First has never stopped commending Makiya’s wisdom to our readers’ attention. (See his commentary on Iraq’s election at our site here. http://www.firstofthemonth.org/archives/2010/10/whither_iraq_re.html) But I fear his reputation has been tarnished for more mainline journalists. While he hasn’t been in their arena lately, he was on a panel at NYC’s Left Forum this month. If he’s been pushed to the margins of political discourse, that would be a shame George Packer bears some responsibility for. Berube, by the way, isn’t volunteering to put his shoulder to the wheel. He spent pages in War on Packer’s Iraq invasion narrative but when asked if he’d checked to see if First‘s report on PackerGate checked out, he wrote he had other “fish to fry.” Now, though, having proved to the Ages (or at least to his own satisfaction) DeMott Screwed Up and having prodded O’Brien to take a job [Good luck with that.], maybe Berube will delve into PackerGate. I’m not holding my breath of course – just taking my cue from (that other) Charles the Bold’s rap: It is not necessary to hope in order to undertake, nor to succeed in order to persevere.


1 Here’s what I wrote about PackerGate in First of the Year: 2008.

The narrative of George Packer’s “definitive” book on the invasion and occupation [of Iraq], The Assassins’ Gate (2005), slid around set-pieces of disillusionment that felt contrived. While it was easy to identify with Packer’s disdain for the Bush Administration’s “criminal incompetence,” there was something off about his aggrieved tone and the new journalistic animus he directed toward Kanan Makiya. Packer blamed Makiya (though he claimed to “love” him) for providing rationales that caused his own heart to rise as he contemplated the invasion of Iraq. Yet, “sweets and flowers” notwithstanding, Makiya was much more realistic about the prospects for democracy in Iraq than Packer lets on. At the end of chapter called “Exiles,” Packer quoted lines from a pre-invasion email that Makiya wrote from Kurdistan, finding in them his friend’s true voice – “the fearless voice of his books” – rather than the compromised sound of Makiya banging drums for war. But the email by Makiya that Packer cited was addressed not (as The Assassins’ Gate suggests) “to a few friends” but to “every Iraqi democrat in the world.” Makiya distributed it through various e-mail listservs and then published it in The New Republic. The email wasn’t a sign the pure Makiya had momentarily re-surfaced; it was another political act. And a pretty prophetic one.Makiya began by telling how a fellow member of the Iraqi opposition had threatened to “wipe him off the face of the earth” after fantasizing a slight. This was a genuine threat from a deeply disturbed man. But Makiya wasn’t out to make himself appear heroically embattled. He invoked the threat because it came from someone who was an ally – a person “who had suffered as much as any human being at the hands of the Baath party…at one point he weighed 30 kilos.” Makiya asked his readers to see this man feelingly – “try to imagine the worst and you will not come close to what this man has suffered in his life” – and then recognize – “this is the human raw material that you want to build democracy for…”

Every day for the last five weeks, I have come across such damaged and wounded people, people who breathe nationalism, sectarianism, without knowing that they are doing so, and people who are deeply suspicious towards their fellow Iraqis. These are the facts of life for the next generation in this poor, unhappy, and ravaged land.

Makiya had developed the impression:

Some of you think you can lift your noses and ride into Iraq on American tanks, above the stink of it all, without having to wade knee-high in the shit that the Baath party has made of your country. You cannot. That is a pipe dream.

Makiya elaborated on his warning and as he came to the end of his note he anticipated a future of disillusion.

The United States…is bound to let you down if you think you can ask her for too much. Actually, if you think about it hard enough, it is not the U.S. that is letting you down, nor is it President Bush or even his CIA and his State Department…it is you, who by coming face to face with your own illusions, will end up letting yourselves down the most, and it is you and all those Iraqis who have put their faith in you, who will end up paying the biggest price of all.

Packer left this passage from Makiya’s pre-war message out of The Assassins’ Gate. The timing of Makiya’s prediction about what lay ahead for his side (and himself!) didn’t quite fit the arc of Packer’s story. What counts now is not that Makiya was right on, (He wasn’t done being wrong yet.) What matters is that he was thinking hard, offering Iraqis who had put their faith in him not certainties but a chance to join his search for moral precision.

From March, 2011