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Sacco & Vanzetti
June 19, 2005 11:22 AM   Subscribe

Sacco & Vanzetti. Two anarchists executed in Massachusetts in 1927. Their guilt was and is widely disputed.
'Sacco and Vanzetti were executed on August 23, 1927, a date that became a watershed in twentieth-century American history. It became the last of a long train of events that had driven any sense of utopian vision out of American life. The workings of American democracy now seemed to many Americans as flawed and unjust as many of the older societies of the world, no longer embodying any bright ideal, but once again serving the interests of the rich and the powerful. '
posted by plep (67 comments total)

 
It became the last of a long train of events that had driven any sense of utopian vision out of American life.

Sacco & Vanzetti were probably innocent, and their execution was a miscairage of justice, but as far as the death of utopianism? good riddance.
posted by jonmc at 11:24 AM on June 19, 2005


Dammit jonmc, will you stop reading my mind and typing faster than I do? One or the other will do, please.
posted by davy at 11:29 AM on June 19, 2005


Sacco & Vanzetti were probably innocent

Not true. Some researcher did ballistics tests in the 70's and decided that Sacco may have been innocent, but Bart Vanzetti's gun was used. The gun could have been planted on Vanzetti, but there was no reason to do that-- the police couldn't reliably connect spent rounds to specific guns back then and neither of them denied owning guns.

And the fact that Venzetti was probably involved suggests that Sacco probably was too because they were tight. But they should not have been convicted on the available evidence and no one should be excuted.
posted by Mayor Curley at 11:41 AM on June 19, 2005


Got a cite for that ballistics info, Mayor Curley? I'm intrigued.
posted by mediareport at 11:53 AM on June 19, 2005


And, just for the record, the case summary in plep's link has the guilt reversed:

others more plausibly arguing that, based on new ballistics tests and words by Carlo Tresca and Fred Moore, Sacco was guilty, Vanzetti innocent. No single account nor any ballistics test has been able to put all doubts about innocence or guilt completely to rest, despite the two most recent books that have claimed to have done so, while arriving at almost directly opposite conclusions.
posted by mediareport at 11:56 AM on June 19, 2005


they wouldve died anyways
posted by Satapher at 11:58 AM on June 19, 2005


I should have looked it up before I said anything, but I felt sure it was Vanzetti's gun. You know as much as I do to research it now-- I learned about he ballistics test from an aside in a college textbook I read in the mid-90's. But it sounds like the results of the test are disputed, anyway. So the more we know, the less we know.
posted by Mayor Curley at 12:05 PM on June 19, 2005


Metafilter: the more we know, the less we know.
posted by davy at 12:08 PM on June 19, 2005


death of utopianism? good riddance

I will respectfully disagree with that. I think it's more fun to live in optimistic times, however I think it's important to build a situation in which the optimism is honestly well founded.
posted by nervousfritz at 1:19 PM on June 19, 2005


The Sacco Vanzetti Project is currently engaged in the following initiatives:

(1) organizing a Conference to be held at the Boston Public Library on October 4-5, 2002...
A tad out of date.

Despite the Bushies, I believe we are currently living in optimistic times.
posted by mischief at 1:21 PM on June 19, 2005


Well, we can't have a S&V thread without this deservedly famous quote:

"If it had not been for these things, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have died, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man's understanding of man as now we do by accident. Our words—our lives—our pains—nothing! The taking of our lives—lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish-peddler—all! That last moment belongs to us—that agony is our triumph."

[Statement attributed to Bartolomeo Vanzetti by Philip D. Stong, a reporter for the North American Newspaper Alliance who visited Vanzetti in prison in May of 1927 shortly before he and Sacco were executed.]
posted by languagehat at 1:48 PM on June 19, 2005


Thanks for the link. I just wanted to add that my cats are named Sacco and Vanzetti. Neither are Italian, but both are anarchists and guilty as hell. That is all.
posted by Hlewagast at 1:56 PM on June 19, 2005


Once upon a time I took a course from Professor Sacvan Bercovitch, an esteemed scholar of American literature whose first name was his idealistic (and Communistic) parents' homage to Sacco and Vanzetti.

For some reason that's just about the only thing I remember about him or that class.
posted by GrammarMoses at 2:17 PM on June 19, 2005


"...as far as the death of utopianism? good riddance."

Why?

Isn't Utopia about making the world a better place? A better place for everyone? Isn't Utopia about a clean environment and sustainable economies? Isn't it about quality health care for all? Quality education for all?
posted by rougy at 2:27 PM on June 19, 2005


I think things like Haymarket were more influential in enshrining corporate and rich and powerful interests, but S&V were very important, especially in terms of how America saw immigrants--The late 20s saw a virtual closing of our shores to most immigrants.
posted by amberglow at 2:30 PM on June 19, 2005


rougy: Why?

In neoconservative circles, Utopianism is a negative code word meaning "naive, fantasy root of liberalism" / "enemy of the individual".
posted by syzygy at 3:38 PM on June 19, 2005


In neoconservative circles,

Jonmc is many things, but a neoconservative is not one of them.
posted by drezdn at 3:45 PM on June 19, 2005


Isn't Utopia about making the world a better place?

I usually think of utopianisms as being about making the world a perfect place, not a merely better one. Perfect, as in "the perfect is the enemy of the good."

Utopianisms also invite abuses from their supporters, since the end of a perfect society really might justify all sorts of repugnant means.

That's a goofy definition of utopianism, I think, syzygy. Objectivism and anarcho-capitalist libertarianism are both strongly utopian in the negative sense.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:54 PM on June 19, 2005


Well, seeing as how the enactment of Utopian visions tend to require a major social upheaval, rather then incremental improvements, in the last 100 years every attempt to create one has generated far, far more misery then happiness.

There are many of us that view the very naive act of believing in the possibility of a utopia enables the resultant divorce with reality that results in a worse situation then we began with.

Basically, believing in utopia leads to very very bad ideas.
posted by Jezztek at 3:58 PM on June 19, 2005


ROU: it's not my definition. Each ism has its own, loaded definitions of many words. You and I, hopefully, have more objective definitions of those words.

drezdn: I wasn't trying to accuse Jonmc of being a neoconservative, and I regret the ambiguity.

Apparently I'm not in the best posting form tonight, so I'll step out.
posted by syzygy at 4:07 PM on June 19, 2005


Basically, believing in utopia leads to very very bad ideas.

And the denial of scarcity's existence.
posted by Kwantsar at 4:09 PM on June 19, 2005


I think it's more fun to live in optimistic times

Optimism and Utopianism are two different things, buddy. The problem with Utopianism is that eventually reality rears it's ugly head to expose some flaw in the utopian system, and thus will require crushing, because to do otherwise would be to admit that the perfect system is not perfect.
posted by jonmc at 4:22 PM on June 19, 2005


I believe that the repeated emergence of utopianism throughout history reflects a basic neurological wiring of human beings. Making new neural connections is expensive: it's less energy intensive to use existing patterns and rejig them. Hence the widespread use of stereotyping to avoid novel analysis or threatening category violations. Hence also the desire to simplify existence and deny its complexity, for comprehending complexity and continuums leads to anxiety. Hence therefore the widespread belief in utopian natures (souls), ultimate utopian destinations (afterlives), perfectability (directed evolution of the self, society, or ideas of progress or Enlightenment), the comprehensibility of nature (physics, chemistry, taxonomy, biology and so on), markets, profits, and the politics of commonwealth. All of these are emergent properties of a utopian drive shared by virtually all people, but which expresses itself in a myriad of social behaviours.
posted by meehawl at 4:22 PM on June 19, 2005


I believe that the repeated emergence of utopianism throughout history reflects a basic neurological wiring of human beings.

I think it's the same neurological wiring that drives others to fundamentalist religions. Utopians are basically political fundies if you ask me; rather than accept that the world is a fundamentally flawed, chaotic place full of flawed, chaotic beings, they feel the need to create some kind of balance sheet where everything is accounted for. Good luck with that. And theology and ideology arent that different in the hands of the pigheaded and blinkered.
posted by jonmc at 4:41 PM on June 19, 2005


Or to put it another way: regardless of what ideology people live under they are driven by pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, and sloth. (I do not consider myself exempt, I've gone back for second helpings on all of the above). But we're also often driven by truth, love, courage, wisdom, creativity, tolerance and freedom.

The deadly sins and heavenly virtues motivate all of us. If we can simply accept that, and structure our worldview around that acceptance, we might be OK.
posted by jonmc at 4:53 PM on June 19, 2005


There's a lot of Utopia to go around. One of my favourite fictional ones is Le Guin's Annares in The Dispossessed. Riffing off The Dispossessed's alternative title ("An Ambiguous Utopia"), there's also Delany's Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia. The great thing about Utopias is that there are so many to choose from.
posted by meehawl at 5:12 PM on June 19, 2005


I dunno, imagining and working towards perfectability while admitting that you will never actually get there (a balancing feat difficult to pull off) still seems preferable to just shrugging your shoulders and saying, "Yep, people are scum."
posted by dame at 5:26 PM on June 19, 2005


Comment re Sacco and Vanzetti, unrelated to the Utopia discussion.

I went to a very progressive grammar school in Brookline, Massachusetts. In fifth grade, we studied Sacco and Vanzetti, they were proclaimed to be innocent. We visited the courthouse in Dedham, MA, where they were tried. It left a huge impression on me, where 35 years later I still feel terrible that they were unjustly put. to. death.
posted by WaterSprite at 5:27 PM on June 19, 2005


well, actually, 31, I am aging myself.
posted by WaterSprite at 5:28 PM on June 19, 2005


I dunno, imagining and working towards perfectability while admitting that you will never actually get there (a balancing feat difficult to pull off) still seems preferable to just shrugging your shoulders and saying, "Yep, people are scum."

Well, you're young yet.

But, that's not what I'm doing at all, really. I'm merely acknowledging that even the best of us are often driven by our worst, most basest instincts, and that to acknowledge that and structure our worldview around that acknowledgement is healthier than trying to chase some unrealistic world where all bad thoughts and motivations are magically eliminated, either by religion or politics.

caveat: I have no idea what kind of ideology would accompany this worldview. I'm just theorizing.
posted by jonmc at 5:36 PM on June 19, 2005


also, I fully acknowledge that the Seven Deadly Sins are all basically healthy drives taken to unhealthy extremes.
posted by jonmc at 5:38 PM on June 19, 2005


I note, finally, that Federovian cosmism (that is to say, Soviet transhumanism), was a huge fad in Russia during the revolutionary phase between the 1890s and the 1920s. Cryogenics, accelerated, directed evolution, the creation of perfectible and incorruptible bodies, and all that jazz. The perfect secular accessory to the myths of a progressively improving society. For a while they even toyed with the idea of freezing Lenin, so that he could be thawed in an undoubtedly incredibly advanced future Soviet world and cured. But the expense was daunting. All they got in the end was a mummy. Faith in post-human utopias waxes and wanes with budgets and economic expansions.
posted by meehawl at 5:59 PM on June 19, 2005


rather than accept that the world is a fundamentally flawed, chaotic place full of flawed, chaotic beings, they feel the need to create some kind of balance sheet where everything is accounted for. Good luck with that.

One of the smartest things I've read from you, jon.
posted by Kwantsar at 5:59 PM on June 19, 2005


Paul Avrich's Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background is probably the best thing I read about S&V, because there is hardly anything about the case. It's about the culture of Anarchism and the Italian immigrant community at the time.

"where all bad thoughts and motivations are magically eliminated, either by religion or politics."

Well, it's a good thing anarchism doesn't try to achieve that. But then I haven't the faintest idea what it is you think you're criticisizing.
posted by raaka at 7:33 PM on June 19, 2005


But then I haven't the faintest idea what it is you think you're criticisizing.

Don't be cute, raaka, you're not good at it. Try Capitalism, fuedalism, fascism and communism. And how exactly does anarchism handle greed effectively?
posted by jonmc at 7:36 PM on June 19, 2005


"Greed" is a constellation of behaviours with different etiologies but a similar mode of expression. Many people have tried to explain where some or all of "greed" comes from: egoism, fear of privation, abnormal psychology, commodity fetishism, competition, and fixation. Some or all of the factors influencing various of these modes have been and will be different within different human cultures in the past and in future times. Shevek, in the Le Guin book, has a lot to say on the inevitability of greed, both physical and sexual.
posted by meehawl at 7:55 PM on June 19, 2005


If you believe the Capitalists or fuedal lords ever remotely had the intention of elminating "bad thoughts and motivations" then I am clearly as adorable as a pailful of kittens.
posted by raaka at 7:59 PM on June 19, 2005


You've referenced a lot of sci-fi books and philosophical treaties, meehawl. Do you have anything reality based that you'd care to share?

If you believe the Capitalists or fuedal lords ever remotely had the intention of elminating "bad thoughts and motivations"

No but they had a plan for keeping them in check via the church and "tradition." And obviously their own motivations were far from pure themselves, and I sincereley doubt that any other ideologues motivations are much different, even if their greed is for power or ego gratification rather than wealth. See what I'm getting at. And kittens aren't that cute. cats are independent little pricks. Gimme pug puppies, anyday.
posted by jonmc at 8:03 PM on June 19, 2005


Could not the civil rights movement be considered a utopian movement ? WHile it may not have realized all its goals, it certainly made the country a better place, did it not ? Of course, one can spilt hairs by narrowly defining what utopian means or one can back off of making incredibly broad simplistic statements.
posted by y2karl at 8:23 PM on June 19, 2005


split hairs not spilt hairs, of course...
posted by y2karl at 8:26 PM on June 19, 2005


Could not the civil rights movement be considered a utopian movement ?

Or merely a correction of an illogical wrong. It didn't attemt to create a perfect world, merely correcting an obvious wrong.

WHile it may not have realized all its goals, it certainly made the country a better place, did it not ?

That's not what I'm saying, karl. I don't think any of the leaders of that movement thought they were creating a perfect world (rhetoric notwithstanding) merely looking out for the interests of their people.

You could even say that they were revolting against the white supremacist utopian vision of their opponents.
posted by jonmc at 8:36 PM on June 19, 2005


or to state the obvious: one man's utopia is another man's hell. Therein lies the rub.
posted by jonmc at 8:37 PM on June 19, 2005


Of course, one can spilt hairs by narrowly defining what utopian means or one can back off of making incredibly broad simplistic statements.

This may be the central problem of this conversation. The way I learned it, "utopian" means trying to create some overriding system that will create a perfect society. And any reasonable person will admit that such a thing is an impossibility, and to chase it is futile, if not potentially destructive.

I didn't say that that we shouldn't try to improve the world, or that obvious wrongs shouldn't be corrected, just that chasing the chimera of paradise on earth is a dangerous proposition.
posted by jonmc at 8:54 PM on June 19, 2005


And as such, we live in a world that can effectively be described as "Better than Stalinist Russia."
posted by Balisong at 9:13 PM on June 19, 2005


Paul Berman is an odd duck, a pro-socialist neocon, or perhaps a proto-necon, but a shewd social critic. His essay, http://slate.msn.com/id/3135/ (Slate) contains a very useful view. My view of Berman is qualified by aspects of his political beliefs (particularly his liberal anti-communism) that I disagree with and what I believe to be serious errors in his interpretation of Jihadist terrorism, but he is a sharp analyst and a good writer. At any rate, the Slate article is very interesting.

The reexamination of the ballistics evidence was covered in Francis Russell's "Were Saco and Vanzetti Innocent?" in the June 1962 American Heritage and reprinted in A Sense of History: The Best Writing from the Pages of American Heritage.

Russell then went on to write Sacco and Vanzetti: The Case Resolved in 1986 -- which I read many years ago, but do not have a copy to hand. I believe this may be the source of the research that the Mayor is referring to.
posted by warbaby at 10:18 PM on June 19, 2005


Correction: Francis Russel wrote an earlier book, Tragedy in Dedham: The Story of the Sacco-Vanzetti Case, published in 1962. The American Heritage article is summary of a section from that book.

I have not read this book, so I don't know how it differs from the later one.

The initial ballistics evidence was botched and has often been used as a study in how not to do forensic ballistics. At the time of the trial, Robert Churchill, the British gunsmith who invented the comparison microscope and most of the methods of modern forensic ballistics was only getting started and his methods had not yet been introduced to the United States. Churchill comments extensively on the errors made in the Sacco and Vanzetti trial in his autobiography, The Other Mr. Churchill.
posted by warbaby at 10:29 PM on June 19, 2005


Last fixit: the Berman article link is here. Sorry.
posted by warbaby at 10:31 PM on June 19, 2005


Two long personal anecdotes, since the googleweb covers most about everything else:

1) My grandfather, now deceased, passed the Pennsylvania Bar at the age of 19, bypassing law school altogether. Pennsylvania awarded him his license on the condition that he agree not to practice until he was 21. So he went to Europe and more or less bummed around, waiting to come of age.

He was sitting in Spain, six months later, when the Sacco and Vanzetti story hit the press. He flew home as soon as he could and volunteered for the legal defense team. For the next few months, he met with S+V often, getting their testimony, helping how he could.

When he was about 85 or so, I asked him what he thought about what had gone down. He said, well, it was part of a pattern that would be repeated often: I lost a case, and the United States killed an innocent man.

I said, you mean two men. He said, nah, that Sacco, you could just tell, guilty. He said, if I've learned anything, it's how to tell when a client is lying to you, and it started right there in a Massachussetts jail cell.

Then he added, Vanzetti, he was an innocent man if ever I saw one, and one thing's sure, which was that it didn't matter to the United States prosecutors whether either one of them was guilty or not, they were going to hang, no matter what they had to do to hang them.

I'm paraphrasing there, but this part I remember verbatim, he said: It was too easy for them to frame them, is the sad part, for them not to do it. Too easy and too useful. It was a god damn shame.

2. I once visited Braintree, where the robbery and murder had taken place. Using maps from old newspapers, I biked to where it had happened, as best I could tell. I don't remember now what's there, but it was basically farmland and some houses here and there.

I was trying to photograph the specific historic spot, what was + wasn't there, when an old man approached me, with neither warmth nor malice. We got to talking about what had happened, and mostly I was trying to let him talk. After about 20 minutes of discussing where the bank had been, and what Braintree had been like, there was a long pause.

He sighed and said, one weird thing, I'll tell you, and I don't tell this story often. He said, we once had big problems with our septic line, and some folks came out and checked the lines, and it still was messed up. So I opened up some of the pipes further in, close to my house, it was horrible, you ever smelled something like that?

I said no, but then he said, thing is, no one believes me so I stopped talking about it, but the thing is, there was a gun in there. A real old one, a revolver. Real old. I asked him whether it could be that old. He said, it looked exactly that old.

I asked if he reported it. He said, no, the last thing I want in the world is some bunch of reporters and lawyers crawling around the septic lines to my house. He said, I put it back, and closed the ground up. No one believes me, but that gun is in there.

I have no idea if he was telling the truth or not. This story is true, but I don't know if his was. Like most stories, there's probably some truth in there and there's probably some shit. Sometimes I think about that gun, and that guy, and I wonder, you know, what else we leave alone because no one wants reporters and lawyers hanging around.

Know what I'm saying?
posted by cloudscratcher at 10:41 PM on June 19, 2005


cloudscratcher, that's an amazing story about your grandfather.

I do know what you are talking about because of my personal experience in the Washington State Militia trial. You can read about that in Jane Kramer's book, Lone Patriot. It is my belief that John Pitner, the Maximum Leader of the WSM, was wrongly convicted on the machine gun charges in that trial. My take is that John was taped by the FBI bragging about something he never did. But Pitner was such a pathological liar that his attorney didn't dare allow him to testify. There were aspects of that trial that were a real mess. Jane's book is worth a look.
posted by warbaby at 10:51 PM on June 19, 2005


Could not the civil rights movement be considered a utopian movement ? WHile it may not have realized all its goals, it certainly made the country a better place, did it not ?

Someone -- I think it's Michael Walzer but that's on my office bookshelf so I dunno fer shure -- has a book about this, in part. That I last read in like 1995, so I might be wrong here.

He argues that the civil rights struggle was like Exodus -- you're in Egypt, and with great struggle and pain you free yourself from Pharaoh, but you still have all of your other problems, and you're still a problem to yourself. The civil rights struggle was a fight to end an evil, to end a single, particular evil.

Real utopianism, he argues, is like the Messiah. It's going to come and sweep away everything before it, and it will wipe away every tear, and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. Utopianism doesn't struggle to end an evil, it struggles to end evil itself. It fights to rid the world of injustice, not merely some particular injustice. And in doing so, he argues, messianic politics are dangerous.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:27 PM on June 19, 2005


Do you have anything reality based that you'd care to share?

*Every* Utopia that has been proposed begins as fiction. Some people have managed to force fictional ideas of utopia to develop into a reality. However, in the end reality rarely resembles internal models. Ultimately though, one of the processes of power is that the internal worlds of those with power can be projected outward to become the external realities of others. That is the essence of politics. That is why authoritarians tend to dislike fiction, because it presents alternative realities to the accepted truths.

The body is also directly invested in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs. (From Discipline and Punish).

It's the Sapir-Whorf controversy, write large.

What's your problem with "fiction"?
posted by meehawl at 3:59 AM on June 20, 2005


Paul Berman is an odd duck, a pro-socialist neocon, or perhaps a proto-necon... My view of Berman is qualified by aspects of his political beliefs (particularly his liberal anti-communism) that I disagree with...

Holy shit, so anyone who disapproves of communism is a neocon? I can't imagine the levels of willed blindness and denial it takes to still have fantasies about the goodness of communism after 1918-21, 1937, 1956, 1968, and for chrissakes everything that's come out since the long-awaited collapse of the unlamented USSR, not to mention all that's happened in China, Vietnam, Cuba, and everyplace else that's tried to operate on the basis of that misbegotten theory. Paul Berman is one of the best, most thoughtful... socialists, progressives, however you want to classify him... in America; to call him a "neocon" is to reveal your own poverty of political analysis.

cloudscratcher: Great stories, thanks for sharing them.

Like most stories [and septic tanks!], there's probably some truth in there and there's probably some shit.
posted by languagehat at 6:59 AM on June 20, 2005


I dunno, languagehat. Berman (whose new book I am working on and who is a very nice man, even though I disagree with him often) does make common cause with the neocon idea of Iraq as The Worst Dictatorship Ever, which, if invaded correctly, would blossom into a democracy and spread freedom throughout the Middle East. He came to that idea in a different way than did many of the neocons, and he is often thoughtful, but to see where he matches up with the neocons is not as absurd as you seem to think. He certainly is a funny kind of leftist, with the excesses that liberal anti-communism often produces--a willingness to misapprehend capitalism's own problems, for instance, and a willingness to ignore some arguments for a "greater good."
posted by dame at 8:53 AM on June 20, 2005


Languagehat, my view of Berman (whose analysis I admire greatly but have fundamental disagreements with) is not impoverished. Classifying him as the one of the farthest left neocons is historically and politically well-founded.

My classification of Berman as a neocon accurately places him in the group of New York Jewish intellectuals who come out of the socialist labor union movement like Nathan Glazer, Irving Kristol, Seymour Martin Lipsett, Daniel Bell, Daniel Patrick Moynihanm, Norman Podhoretz, Samuel Huntington and the rest of the original neocons who emerged from City College in New York and went on to found The Public Interest.

Two of the Ur-books of neoconservatism are The Lonely Crowd (which contains the seeds of the core neoconservtive concept of a New Class) and The New American Right (which outlines the Pluralist / Extremist theory of American political conflict fully developed by Lipsett in The Politics of Unreason.)

If you want my views on Pluralist / Extremist theory (and my countervailing position), I refer you to the April/June 1999 issue of Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, where I have a lengthy review essay titled "A Time for New Beginnings." The journal isn't available on the web, so you'll have to go to a large research library to find it. My disagreement with Berman's analysis of jihadist terrorism centers on his mischaracterization of jihadism as a form of fascism and my view that what we are dealing with is a form of destructive revitalization movement of the sort intitially described by Norman Cohn in The Pursuit of the Millenium and later more fully filled out in Warrant for Genocide.

The best history and analysis of the evolution of neoconservatism that I know of can be found in Godfrey Hodgson's The World Turned Right Side Up: A istory of the conservative ascendency in America.

A comparative reading of his chapter on neoconservatism, "Out of the Alcove" with Berman's somewhat concealed description of his political background and evolution in the first chapter of A Tale of Two Utopias clearly demonstrates Berman's position on the left margin of neoconservative thought.

When I said that Berman is an odd duck, I meant that it's a very odd "progressive" who supported the Reagan Doctrine in Central America (and devoted a considerable amount of time and energy to polemic attacks on the Sandanistas) and who currently supports the Bush regime's invasion of Iraq and the neoconservative agenda in the Global War on Terror.

I'd love to participate with you in a thread about Berman. I've found your comments on MeFi interesting, informative and have learned things that have altered my understanding and interpretations.

on preview: thanks, dame.
posted by warbaby at 9:22 AM on June 20, 2005


Sorry to misconstrue your position -- from your offhand reference I thought it was simply his opposition to communism that made him a "neocon" in your eyes. I still disagree with the characterization, but I withdraw my own offhand snarkiness and agree that his position on Iraq and associated problems is hard to swallow; I guess I cut him more slack than the likes of Hitchens for reasons that may not be entirely rational. But thanks to both you and dame for your unhostile responses, and I too would enjoy a Berman thread.
posted by languagehat at 2:51 PM on June 20, 2005


Okay jonmc, how is "chasing the chimera of paradise on Earth" qualitatively different from "trying to improve the world"? How would anything count as "improvement" without some kind of over-arching "vision"? I do realize there can be no "perfect world" with any living organisms in it, but it helps to have a goal once can feel oneself approaching -- even if only in eesy-weensy increments. As for "looking out for the interests of [one's] own people", is there a difference between "justice" and "Us-vs.-Them"?

And ROU_xenphobe, I clearly have definitional problems with your guru's noble struggle to save the world from evil Utopianism.

And languagehat, by his own tacit admission -- that he spelled out himself without using the word -- Berman is an imperialist. If one sees nothing wrong with his opinion that the UN should join the Bush administration in a universal war against the enemies of what he calls "liberalism", what -- besides being on the other side -- was wrong with the Stalinists' desire to conquer the world in the name of "Communism"? I think too that in this Dissent article Berman shows himself to be Utopian as others in this thread use the word: it's as if destroying "the worst kinds of nihilists" wherever they are -- and if you're looking you can find them all over -- will save he world from capital-E Evil, that is that he's just set out the flip-side to the "Islamofascists'" own chase of "the chimera of paradise on Earth".

I must also say that according to that Dissent article Berman is not a leftist, whatever he thinks; Marx and Engels, in praising 19th-century colonialist imperialism as necessary for "Progress", by that opted out of the Left themselves. Remember too that in 1935 Mussolini claimed to be bringing "Progress" to the Ethiopians (by shooting and bombing them if need be), and that he never ceased calling himself a "socialist". How can you count Berman among the "socialists" and "progressives" and deny those labels to Mussolini?

Being "on the left margin of neoconservative thought" does not mean being anywhere left of center; Nixon may have been a liberal compared to Dubya, but he was still a fascist thug.

Approaching closing, I say that one can be an imperialist without being a neoconservative, but one cannot be an imperialist and still be a leftist. And while I'm making sweeping pronouncements, I also say "we" cannot "save the world" according to the partisan excuses of one U.S. presidential administration, nor should "we" try: it was wrong for Bonaparte and it's wrong for Bush. ["Thump!"]
posted by davy at 3:32 PM on June 20, 2005


Hell, you probably have a point. I dunno why I cut Berman more slack than others who have succumbed to the siren call of ideological war. I guess I'm hoping he'll see the error of his ways.
posted by languagehat at 3:46 PM on June 20, 2005


Like I said, before, davy we seem to be talking about two different definitions of "utopianism," here. It's the "pie in the sky," version that makes me nervous no matter who it's coming from.
posted by jonmc at 4:43 PM on June 20, 2005


May I suggest that it's because Berman is a damn good writer, a very intelligent social critic, and he clearly dislikes the extreme right. I think he is so hard to figure out because he sounds like a liberal, when actually he is something fairly rare in America, a conservative (in the non-reactionary sense) socialist.
posted by warbaby at 4:55 PM on June 20, 2005


Uh, Davy, what about the Soviet-style Russian imperialism? Just asking.

Politics is multi-dimensional. Squeezing it into a single-dimension left/right continuum requires ignoring the complexity.
posted by warbaby at 4:58 PM on June 20, 2005


Uh, Davy, what about the Soviet-style Russian imperialism? Just asking.

Uh, Warbaby, did you really read my post? Just asking, 'cuz it should have been obvious when I said Marx and Engels weren't really leftist that I'd say the same thing about their disciples' "Soviet-style Russian imperialism", as well as Trotsky's "minority opinion" given his handling of Ukraine and Kronstadt. It's the same problem as with Mussolini and Berman: just because someone claims to be leftist doesn't mean they are -- or that they even know what one might look like.

Suppose I claimed to be a fundamentalist Christian: except for certain little details, like not believing in the divinity of Jesus (or of YHWH for that matter), and thinking that the Bible is just a crappily-edited anthology of BDSM fairy tales, and basing my morality on secular empirical principles, and so on, I really am a fundamentalist Christian -- and a damn good one at that! By what standards could you tell me I'm not really a Falwellite if I swear up and down I am?

Politics is multi-dimensional.

Sure. But one can reduce one's confusion by keeping track of some basic definitions.

Squeezing it into a single-dimension left/right continuum requires ignoring the complexity.

Ah, but y'see, languagehat and I were talking about whether Paul Berman is a leftist; I said he ain't, and gave both a rule-of-thumb definition and the historical examples to support my assertion. Berman's politics may be quite multi-dimensional and complex, they're just not "socialist", "progressive" or "leftist". One might make a case for Berman as a liberal, but I've already said that by say European standards American "liberals" are not leftist but centrist -- and that the Clintons were in fact rightist but not quite as extremely right as their critics who call them "leftists"; Bonaparte was a liberal too by the way, as was Mussolini in a good mood.

May I suggest that it's because Berman is a damn good writer,

Yes, clearly. A masterful polemicist. Better in text mode than Hitler.

a very intelligent social critic,

Intelligent, yes; critical, sometimes.

and he clearly dislikes the extreme right.

Yeah, he hates 'em so much that he wants the whole world to get behind their foreign policy -- and the whole USA to get behind its domestic prerequisites. Except for demonstratively and loudly kissing their asses, dotting their I's and crossing their T's when they forget to (if they even know how) and telling everybody how great and correct they are, he clearly hates their guts. It's obvious!

You'd get a lot further if you paid attention. Just sayin'.
posted by davy at 6:38 PM on June 20, 2005


Well, I think the difference between Berman and proper neocons is that the path they took towards supporting the war in Iraq is fairly different. (When the book comes out you guys should read it, because it's interesting if infuriating.) Berman is pro-war for reasons that are as good as pro-war reasons can be--he genuinely believes that invading is fighting fascism, the greatest rightist wrong in the entire world. He has a concern for ordinary people that is utterly genuine in a way that neocons never match. He was involved in the leftist movements of the sixties and finds this stance a logical continuation. Unlike Hitchens, he didn't just lose his shit over September 11 and essentially renounce his leftism.

At least that's why I give him a little more credit. He's still wrong, though.
posted by dame at 8:28 PM on June 20, 2005


This is why I say that Berman is on the fringe of the neocons. but he's just hasn't made the commitment to joining their establishment. I'm not at all sure where he wants to position himself. He definitely comes from the same social milleau, but of a later generation, as the original neocons. But he's still trying to find a niche among people who consider themselves of the left. Like I said, Berman's an odd duck.

He's clearly wrong about his equating jihadism with fascism. That's little more than name calling and doesn't really make much sense in terms of the historical and political development of fascism.

It's like erroneously calling the Japanese militarists fascists because of the tri-power alliance. Fascism usually results from the collapse of a nascent or immature democratic republic. The conditions that led to Al Qaida are entirely different.

There are similarities to the Nazism (but not Mussolini's fascism) but these are the features of a revitalization movement, not of any stage of fascist ideology and politics. Al Qaida and the Taliban are definitely totalistic, but totalism is not unique to fascism.

(I'm talking about Terror and Liberalism, if that wasn't clear.)
posted by warbaby at 11:32 PM on June 20, 2005


On further thought, may I suggest that the impulse driving the neoconservatives is a form of Jewish assimilationism? The neoconservative split with liberalism came, not over Vietnam as so many of them insist, but with the civil rights movement's division over integration and assimilation versus Black Power and multiculturalism. The point where these not very liberal liberals opted firmly for joining forces with the emerging conservative establishment came as a reaction against the emergence of Black identity.

Hodgson's explanation of the emergence of neoconservatism places great emphasis on the role of racial politics. I think this is a very important point, much more than, say, the gibberish about Straus' influence.
posted by warbaby at 11:49 PM on June 20, 2005


For what it's worth, I agree with you, warbaby, that "Islamism" is more like Naziism than Mussolini-style fascism. Not only because they both demonize Jews.

As for your point about neocon's Jewishness, the timing of their "defection" from "liberalism" and racial politics, are you familiar with the foundation of the Jewish Defense League? I've read all kinds of things, but my impression is that that was a response to a mugging surge in Brooklyn.
posted by davy at 11:52 AM on June 21, 2005


Davy, I'm quite familiar with the JDL and I don't see any connection between them and neoconservatives. What are you talking about? And what does this have to do with Kahane?
posted by warbaby at 2:19 PM on June 21, 2005


warbaby: You never heard the cant phrase "a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged"? It was common in the 1970s in big cities on the East Coast; I heard it a lot from middle-class Jews. Some hooked up with neocons, and some went even further.
posted by davy at 6:39 PM on June 21, 2005


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