Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Impotence of Realism

Senior Editor Brian Doherty at Reasononline has a thoughtful review of two new books that he dovetails into one conclusion.

One book -- "The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times," by Jeffrey Hart -- is from the right. The other -- "The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual," by Eric Lott, is from the left. Each is a lament for its own side.

But the ballast isn't even in the keel here. Hart is a champion of the “responsible” center-right, and a foe of “unrealistic” conservative or libertarian radicalism. Lott is writing from the radical left, trying hard to uncouple it from, in Doherty's words, the "prominent liberal intellectuals in the Clinton era and beyond" who "have smothered any truly revolutionary leftist radicalism."

So you have a center-right Samson, pushing against the pillars on either hand, and a far leftie trying to smash the center-left, the better to make war on the evil right.

Doherty has a fine eye for the flaws in the arguments, and Lott seems to offer him more targets than a carnival shooting gallery. He makes short work of the book. But it's long short work. He casually whittles down Lott like a block of balsa till there's nothing left of him but a pile of white shavings on the ground.

Doherty dismantles the National Review book more carefully, and his real target is the magazine itself, not the book that tells its story, and his libertarian sympathies show through here, too, as he counts off the number of NR leading lights who were converted 1930s Marxists who, Doherty says, changed their coats without changing their essential views of politics and power and human nature.

He points to painful examples Hart brings up of NR editorials defending segregation during the early civil rights movement, saying the dream of equal access to voting booths and lunch counters was "unrealistic" and "sentimental." And from this, he extrapolates the perpetual doom of attempts to define a center and occupy it in the name of realism.

Hence, the title of this dual review, "The Vitiated Center," and Doherty's thematic link: "Together, they explore the perils and possibilities of radical ideologies in a centrist nation."

Lott complains American liberalism isn’t radical enough. In fact, his own radicalism, unmoored from history and economics, is self-defeating. Jeffrey Hart’s history of the American right’s leading journal shows the flipside of the American radical’s dilemma: how hewing too doggedly to an acceptable centrism can weaken real effectiveness, even while creating a surface appearance of success.

It's his conclusion from Hart's book that I find most challenging, for it's a shaft aimed at the heart of centerism.

Advocating radical change is often the only way to be realistic, since many central aspects of the modern world cannot, in the long run, survive — from segregation in the 1950s to the entitlement state today. Eisenhower ... was sure that no party would ever speak of ending Social Security and live; thanks to ideological groundwork laid by “off-the-reservation” radical libertarians for decades, the idea is now a real part of the policy debate. Hart himself writes that a respectable right nowadays can’t discuss banning abortion; surely, and regardless of the propriety of abortion laws, a sober reporter would have said the same about legalizing it completely in 1960.


Lasting political change of any sort, whether good or bad — from emancipation to woman’s suffrage to Social Security to the inevitable end of Social Security — starts on the radical fringe before it rules the center. A healthy intellectual discussion should not be restrained by toeing a middle line. As Eric Lott’s bizarre views prove, being radical isn’t the same as being right. But NR’s history suggests that being a politically realistic centrist doesn’t simply mean compromising on little things. Ultimately it makes you incapable of offering a true alternative to a status quo that can range from unmanageable to evil. NR’s past positions on de jure segregation as well as de facto segregation, and its typical embrace of and shilling for GOP pols who pay little but lip service to any conservative principle nowadays other than endless war, show what those who attack radicalism too often forget: the impotence of realism.

Well, that's juicy. At any given time, old, large structures of society totter toward untenable states. That's a reality-based view. Doherty's certainly right about that. But, he seems to say, they won't come down on their own. They have to be brought down by a process that begins with tackle rush from the sidelines of the political field. Note his judicious qualification of such change -- "whether good or bad."

So is that justified by history? Must change always be imagined in the political wilderness before it can happen?

Hard to say. You can point to American slavery as the classic case and say, see, the abolitionists were a despised and radical and occasionally violent fringe group, but in the end their ideas became the will of the people and the law of the land.

But you can't rewind the tape of history and play it without them. You can't say whether the Southern-based abolition movement of the 1820s would have gathered force in the absence of polarizing Northern radicals. You can't say whether the proud South would have hardened in its defense of slavery absent the taunting and provocation. We only know how it happened.

We don't necessarily know if it only could have happened that way. Perhaps the Southern states, with federal aid, could have accomplished a gradual, compensated abolition, along the model of the Northern state abolition acts. There were proposals to that effect kicking around Congress in the 1860s, with a target date of 1900 for total emancipation.

What, keep families in bondage for another 40 years rather than liberating them immediately? What kind of bastard am I? (See a range of opinions below). Yet perhaps that way it would have been accomplished without hundreds of thousands slain, without vicious racial resentments, and with a genuine economic and educational program to get the freedmen started right in their new state. Would we all be better off than we are now?

It also seems to me Doherty's list of historical changes begun in the radical fringes break down into two subsets: destructive change and constructive change. And it seems the essentially negative changes -- the ones that cancel something -- are most typically the ones that heat up on the fringe then move to the center. The destruction of slavery, again, is a classic example. Prohibition is another case. The fight against legal abortion has such qualities, too. The process is as Doherty describes.

But it is not the same thing as a constructive change -- a building of a new order or structure in a nation's life. That has to happen whether the old rotten order falls of its own weight or gets kicked down.

And in those cases, the center plays against the fringe. Lincoln began down the path of Reconstruction by positioning himself in the sane sunshine with reference to the Radical Republicans in Congress. Which is why many in the defeated South were genuinely sorry he got killed before he finished his work. The botched Reconstruction they got was the work of Johnson and Grant.

Roosevelt, too, introduced his retirement savings programs against a background of far more radical proposals, ranging from the Townshend Plan to Huey Long, from communism to fascism. The crisis had arrived, and he solved it radically, from the center.

Centrism has its ugly compromises. Some days I'm afraid it's nothing but that. It lacks the giddy anarchy of radical politics, but you want a robust center when it comes time to build in place of what has fallen.