Paul Berman has always been a NYT Mag kinda leftist – it is a leftism that is to leftism what cottage cheese is to Stilton – the former is a delight only to the diet-er, without any of the odors, flavor, or texture of real cheese and,in political terms, the former is only a delight to the neo-lib, rid of any suggestion of price controls or, heavens, a stripped down Pentagon and unilateral disarmament (which immediately leads to Munich, don’t you know!) There’s been some buzz among the usual journalists about Berman’s “takedown” of Alexander Cockburn in The Newrepublic – which is where cottage cheese goes to die, and be transformed into the sort of rancid stuff that eventually stands on its hind legs and demands that we invade Syria and arm the Ukraine and privatize social security at the same time.
Berman’s article was better written long ago, in a letter to the Nation in 1985, when he pretty much said the same thing about Cockburn in a long complaint that Cockburn had distorted his review of a book about the underground press to make him out to be, in Berman’s words, “a hawk, nearly a felon, virtually Republican.” This is the Berman who went on to become one of the grand supporters of Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Cockburn, a much wittier and deeper writer, replied to Berman’s letter – in which Berman suggested that the Nation fire Cockburn while remarking that Cockburn’s nasty prejudices were fucking up the atmosphere of amity that joined the New Republic, Dissent, and the Nation in the brave new world of anti-communist, neo-liberal, popular frontism that would go from triumph to triumph if only not held back by persnickety stalinists of the Cockburn type, riding on the back of solid democratic socialist politicos like Michael Dukakis (okay, I made up that about Dukakis – it is in the spirit of the letter). Cockburn answered with brio and quotes. Berman had thought to preemptively defend himself by claiming that Cockburn was a misquoter, dropping significant quotes that showed that Berman, too, upheld the red flag and all that. This is what Cockburn wrote:
For a critic who regularly sticks it to playwrights- as part of his professional duties, Paul Berman seems awfully thinskinned.-Since he’s issued a Sneak Alert, fretting that somehow wriggle free with a crafty response, I had better quote once again the lines from his review
that bothered me. There was no distortion or misrepresentation whatsoever.
Berman first described the fine Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett as “a friend of the North Vietnamese government and a Communist of the worst The nuance there was plainly that any friend of the North Vietnamese government should
scarcely be a friend of reasonable people like Berman and the readers of the New Republic. That nuance became forthright abuse with the gibe about the of Burchett’s Communism. -Having thus primed his readers, Berman wrote:
“Burchett offered the insight (1) that the United States was opposing a popular movement in, Vietnam, and (2)
that to war against the popular will means to war against the populace, i.e., to make massacre a policy. Yes,
without question, the movement paid in the end for the prestige it accorded the Burchett line:”
I quoted that passage exactly, and rereading it several times in the wake of Berman’s charges of distortion, am assured
that it clearly means whatI thought it meant. The “insight” that the United States was opposing a popular movement and making massacre a policy is described as “the Burchett line.’‘ This same Burchett has just been described as a Communist of the worst sort. And when the word “line” is juxtaposed with the word “Communist” in such negative
terms, it impossible to conclude that Berman is bearing witness to the value of Burchett’s analysis.
In his letter Berman actually endorses my reading by saying that he “acknowledged Burchett’s objectionable flaws . . . and the unfortunate consequences came from them.” .~T he only such consequences that Berman mentions in the article are Burchett’s views on the Vietnamese popular struggle and the U.S. policy of massacre. Berman claims that suppressed the fact that he “praised” Burchett when he said of the movement that it “gleaned from him what
could hardly be gleaned in the early years of the war, from the mainstream press.” But this praise -- scarcely overwhelming since in the early days of the war the mainstream press was offering no insights whatsoever --is
almost imnediately qualified by Berman’s remark that by 1969 the mainstream press “was conducting investigations into Vietnam somewhat more reliable than those of Wilfred Burchett.”
So all I can do is ask my question again: What was the United States doing in Vietnam if not what Burchett said it was doing? In his letter Berman manages to avoid saying anything on this substantive question, which was the point of my item.
Since Berman accuses me of wider distortion, I may as well say openly that I thought his New Republic article was
carefully tailored to the prejudices of that magazine’s editors. His patronizing account of what he called the “hip underground” went in lockstep with his abuse of any radical 1960s politics, particularly antiwar politics, more challenging than tie-dyed T-shirts and bleed-off graphics. And since he is sufficiently shameless to claim that he
praised the worst-sort-Communist Burchett, I quote what Berman said about the leaders
of the antlwar movement in the late 1960s:
They were still the old crowd of acidheads, Buddhist poets, hippie Maoists, beyond-the-pale comedians, electric guitarists, Third World guerilla warriors, future stockbrokers and religious nuts, plus an unscrupulous conniver or two, and they should have known not to take themselves too seriously.
This kind of language has made Martin Peretz happy ever since he stepped out on his own road to ruin in the late sixties, as I
imagine Berman well knew when he wrote his review. He and Peretz are of course as one on the- Mideast. That aside, Berman’s own politics have often puzzled me. I used to think they tended towards a sort of antiquarian anarchism, but now that innocuous posture has given way to the safari rig of Bananas Republicanism.
Berman sticks it to Navasky too. My beef with Big Vic centers around opportunism, but of rather different sort. Of course he likes these exchanges on the letters page, for which he doesn’t have to pay even in the high two figures. I expect him to suggest soon that the title of column be changed to “Letters, cont.” so he’ll get all my services,
including answerin silly letters like Berman’s, entirely for free.”
That is what a free spirit writes like. His brief aside, etching Berman’s persona as a Safari Republican was pretty much completely borne out by the subsequent career – although I think Cockburn was a little too generous re Berman’s motives. Berman was one of the innovators in the trick of presenting these views as those flowing from an unimpeachable leftism. This is the contrarian trick that became a regular schtick at Slate. It is necessary to reference one’s leftism in order to keep that contrarianism up one’s sleeve, otherwise you’ll sink into the stream of all the Weekly Standard lookalikes advocating this or that mass slaughter. To get heard, one has to advocate mass slaughter for the highest humanitarian reasons!
Cockburn’s letter shows, I think, why Berman so wants to strangle Cockburn’s corpse: the man so maddeningly had his number.