Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Old Macdonald

James Wolcott (of course -- who else?) writes a glowing tribute to the faded glory of an Old Left icon, Dwight Macdonald,

An intellectual journalist equally at leisure in the jaunty pages of Esquire (where he reviewed films) and the ascetic quarters of Partisan Review, Macdonald — born 100 years ago last month — was a generalist whose specialty was capsizing conventional wisdom, exposing highfalutin fraudulence and filing heretical dissents.

Even through the praiseful patina, however, the bones of the man show, and in them the failure of the old American Left. Wolcott limits himself to one examplary Macdonald gob-stopper quote, but to his credit he chooses one difficult to top:

"Europe has its Hitlers, but we have our Rotarians"

and notes that even Trotsky rolled his eyes at this sort of thing: "Every man has a right to be stupid on occasion but Comrade Macdonald abuses it."

You may not come away with Wolcott's affection for Macdonald, but down towards the end, when he returns to the leftist in his old age, comes an insight. Macdonald says,

"When I say no I'm always right, and when I say yes I'm almost always wrong."

Which seems to me to redeem a lot of silliness. I've been thinking for a long time that what separates the people I want to work with from those I don't is not so much "right" or "left." The people I want to work with know what they're for. And they can articulate that. The people I move away from only can tell you what they're against. And they're pretty passionate about that.

There's a trap in that: "I'm FOR getting us out of Iraq and impeaching Bush," or "I'm FOR banning all immigrants and bombing Mecca" is not really a for statement. Even something like "I'm FOR peace and AGAINST war" is not really a "yes" statement in the real world, but a denial of realities. Being too rooted in "NO" can turn you into an ass for the "YES" it backs you into. Yes to Hitler because no to American businessmen.

I'll tip my hat to Wolcott, and Macdonald, for the sake of that insight.