Monday, April 28, 2003

I never got around to reading Paul Berman when he was a real lefty, so it doesn't really bother me that he's now a pro-U.S.-intervention liberal-basher -- he has a much more civil tongue in his head than, say, Christopher Hitchens, and it seemed to me that even as he advocated war by rightists, he wasn't really falling for their demagoguery. Then I read his review of two books on terror in yesterday's New York Times Book Review, one of which, Jean Bethke Elshtain's Just War Against Terror, he praises fulsomely. Why is he falling for crap like this in Elshtain's book?

[Elshtain] notes an inability to listen. Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda have openly expressed their hatred of Christians, Jews and Americans, and their desire for random murder. And yet, in her estimation, all too many people in the universities and in the pulpits profess to be in the dark about Al Qaeda's true intentions, or pretend to know the real reason behind the attack -- some modest, real-world complaint about American or Israeli policies....

She points to the modern reluctance to discuss or even to think about religious motivations. This reluctance, she figures, has made it nearly impossible for many people to take bin Laden and his comrades at their word. The same reluctance in a different version -- the reluctance to think lucidly and carefully about religious motivations -- has contributed, she thinks, to a certain kind of mush-headed sentimentality in antiwar opinion.

I've snipped out two paragraphs and part of a third in what I've quoted above, but go read the full review if you doubt that Berman slides effortlessly, almost unconsciously, from "people in the universities and in the pulpits" to "many [antiwar] people" -- as if lots of people on the left as a whole share the (alleged) tics of academic leftism, specifically an inability to think that Osama bin Laden is an evil guy, or a hater or Jews, or a hater of Americans. I don't hang out with lefty preachers and I know only one or two lefty academics, but I don't know anyone who thinks bin Laden is a nice guy, or who thinks he doesn't hate Americans, or Jews. Do you know anyone that naive?

Berman is easily impressed. Here's his lead:

On Sept. 16, 2001, the first Sunday after the terrorist attacks, Jean Bethke Elshtain listened aghast as a minister instructed his flock: ''It has been a terrible week. But that is no reason to lose your personal dreams! We need to hold on to our own dreams.'' In ''Just War Against Terror,'' she says: ''Thousands dead in Lower Manhattan and at the Pentagon, and this was the best the minister could muster? The disconnect between the words of the sermon and the reality of Ground Zero was stunning.''

I suppose this is jarringly upbeat, but what is leftist or anti-American about it? It seems like a traditional invocation of Positive Mental Attitude -- the sort of thing you heard all the time in the Reagan years. Elshtain might just as easily have expressed horror at this, from a speech made less than two weeks after 9/11:

I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy. Terrorists attacked a symbol of American prosperity. They did not touch its source. America is successful because of the hard work, and creativity, and enterprise of our people. These were the true strengths of our economy before September eleventh, and they are our strengths today.

These words are from that noted leftist George W. Bush -- specifically, his September 20, 2001, address to Congress. (Yes, they're very much out of context. I bet the preacher's words are as well.)

I'd need to read Elshtain's book to know how much she does this -- how much she takes out-of-context and unrepresentative words and describes them as representative, how much she hangs the thoughts of an America-bashing few around the necks of everyone else on the left. It's clear from Berman's review, though, that he thinks the worst represent everyone.

By the way, I don't know a lot about Jean Bethke Elshtain, but here's some of the company she keeps: She's on the board of directors of the Women's Freedom Network, where her colleagues include Mona Charen, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Virginia Postrel, Cathy Young, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Abigail Thernstrom. These aren't right-centrists. This is part of the brainiac wing of the far right.

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