Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 27, 2007

Michael Bérubé: amateur red-baiter

Filed under: Academia,antiwar,cruise missile left — louisproyect @ 3:45 pm

Amateur anti-Communist

As a long-time observer of the “cruise missile left,” I was happy to see Alexander Cockburn nail them in a recent Counterpunch:

The war party virtually monopolized television. AM radio poured out a filthy torrent of war bluster. The laptop bombardiers such as Salman Rushdie were in full war paint. Among the progressives the liberal interventionists thumped their tin drums, often by writing pompous pieces attacking the antiwar “hard left”. Mini-pundits Todd Gitlin and Michael Bérubé played this game eagerly. Bérubé lavished abuse on Noam Chomsky and other clear opponents of the war, mumbling about the therapeutic potential of great power interventionism, piously invoking the tradition of “left internationalism”. Others, like Ian Williams, played supportive roles in instilling the idea that the upcoming war was negotiable, instead of an irreversible intent of the Bush administration, no matter what Saddam Hussein did.

Bérubé, a publicity-hungry Penn State professor who is Alan Colmes to red-baiter David Horowitz’s Sean Hannity, defended himself on Crooked Timber, a group blog that he joined recently and that was made to order for him. This is a gang of underachieving liberal academics with socialist pretensions who spent most of the 90s demanding that the dastardly Serbs be brought to heel and then without skipping a beat cheered on the B-52’s as they rained bombs down on the Taliban. When George W. Bush took the next logical step and invaded Iraq, they responded that this was not what they had in mind. However, a jury would likely have found them guilty of being accessories after the fact. US imperialism certainly saw all these invasions as consistent with each other, even if liberals like Bérubé could not. This would require an understanding of class politics that is sadly missing in the postmodernist swamp he inhabits.

Whenever I think of Bérubé’s attack on antiwar organizers in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, I am reminded of Lillian Hellman’s contemptuous view of the “anti-antifascist left” during the 1930s. These were people who didn’t make a career of bashing Hitler, only bashing the people who had the guts to stand up to Hitler. It is like writing op-ed pieces in the NY Times in 1936 taking the Spanish Republic to task for not disassociating itself from the Kremlin sufficiently. It was bollocks then and bollocks now, as the British say.

It might be useful to review what Bérubé was actually saying 5 years ago, the period described by Cockburn as one of a “filthy torrent of war bluster”. The invasion of Afghanistan had created a powerful momentum to rally around the flag. Todd Gitlin, the Columbia journalism professor linked correctly to Bérubé by Cockburn, had written an atrocious book titled “Intellectuals and the Flag” that lectured the “hard left” for not genuflecting before the stars and stripes.

Bérubé felt inspired by the patriotic fever to write an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education on November 29, 2002 that was a classic red-baiting attack on unpatriotic elements in the antiwar movement. Written just 3 months before the invasion of Iraq, it was an all-out assault on the ANSWER coalition, which for all its faults did at least understand that imperialism had to be opposed in the streets.

Bérubé’s article is titled “Toward an Ideal Antiwar Movement: Mature, Legitimate, and Popular”. All in all, it has the familiar tone of Irving Howe lecturing 1960s radicals about the need to behave. Clearly it was written for the benefit of Bérubé’s peers in academia since anybody in the position to actually organize an ‘ideal’ antiwar movement would not be wasting their time reading a trade magazine for the professorate. He was far more interested in cultivating his own image as an anti-Communist liberal than actually building some kind of alternative to ANSWER. It is doubtful that Bérubé actually organized any kind of protest in his entire life so he wouldn’t know where to start.

In a rare moment of self-awareness, he actually admits to his rather inconsequential nature:

Perhaps I am just an armchair activist, sitting at home in my study, jawing over the fine points of texts, when I should be organizing teach-ins and rallies.

He begins with an anecdote that clearly establishes his national-security mindset. As a 21 year old, he was drawn to an anti-nuclear protest in Central Park in June 1982 but was at odds with most of the participants “in believing that nuclear weapons launched from submarines were a good deterrent.” He decided to grace the demonstration with his presence despite the widespread presence of signs stating that “One Nuclear Bomb Can Ruin Your Entire Day.” In perhaps a concession to youthful impetuousness, he decided not to “think too much about who was organizing the rally.” Bérubé had read in The New York Times that Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger had described the protest as “led by Soviet agents and sympathizers.” That did not worry Bérubé since his crowd “did not, in fact, contain a single Soviet agent or sympathizer.” In reading this nonsense, I am reminded of Joel Kovel’s diagnosis of anti-Communism as a psychiatric disorder.

Moving forward in time, Bérubé is far more tuned in to who is a Red or not:

Twenty years later, the left has begun organizing mass demonstrations against a war in Iraq. But who’s doing the organizing? For the October 6 rally in New York, a group called Not in Our Name, behind which one can find Refuse and Resist!, which in turn has ties to the Revolutionary Communist Party. For the October 26 rally in Washington, a group called Act Now to Stop War & End Racism (ANSWER), run out of Ramsey Clark’s International Action Center, itself a front for the Workers World Party. The groups involved in the demonstrations thus carry some heavy far-left baggage.

Bérubé’s “mature, legitimate and popular” antiwar movement would be stripped of the “heavy far-left baggage” and have Todd Gitlin’s American flag draped across it. This movement would, in his words, pay Iraqi dissidents-in-exile the respect of taking seriously their longstanding desire for “regime change.” In other words, Ahmed Chalabi would be speaking from the podium rather than Ramsey Clark. This movement would also take seriously “the possibility that Saddam Hussein will not really cooperate with United Nations inspections and will seek to develop and deploy weapons of mass destruction.” So instead of demonstrating at the Pentagon, the antiwarriors assembled in the literature professor’s mind would be marching on the Iraqi Consulate demanding that Saddam Hussein liquidate a WMD program that most independent arms monitors described as having been liquidated years earlier.

Finally, Bérubé’s antiwar movement would have insisted that the best alternative to war was the “smart sanctions” that Colin Powell had championed in the early months of the Bush administration. It might be useful to review the motivation behind “smart sanctions” when they were proposed in 2001–before 9/11. As a result of the bad publicity that Clinton era sanctions had generated in the Arab world (remember Madeline Albright’s defense of the sanctions even though they had cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children), there was a powerful momentum to end them. In the face of such pressure, Powell was devising a new strategy that could continue the economic stranglehold on a long-suffering population. Phyllis Bennis explained what the Bush administration had in mind:

Even before September 11th public awareness regarding the impact of sanctions had continued to rise in the U.S., even more so in Europe and with growing outrage across the Middle East. In response, Colin Powell made the replacement of the existing sanctions with a new “smart sanctions” arrangement a cornerstone of his State Department’s approach to Iraq policy. Throughout the first months of the Bush administration in 2001, a new U.S.-proposed sanctions arrangement was under discussion in the Security Council. Officially the proposal was designed to loosen some restrictions on importing food and other goods, while tightening the semi-clandestine oil shipments out and consumer goods in over Iraq‘s long and porous borders. In fact, it was a spin-driven proposal, intended primarily as a public relations ploy to undercut growing regional concern about the dire conditions facing Iraqi civilians under sanctions. As originally endorsed by Powell, the new arrangement would have only tinkered with the sanctions’ impact, not reversed them.

In other words, Bérubé would have expected the antiwar movement to embrace a policy that served “primarily as a public relations ploy to undercut growing regional concern about the dire conditions facing Iraqi civilians under sanctions.”

It should be obvious at this point that Bérubé was never serious about building an alternative to ANSWER. He was only interested in red-baiting it out of existence. If you strip away his leftist pretensions, you are left with the same kind of fetid, flag-waving garbage that used to grace the editorial pages of American newspapers during the mass demonstrations of the 1960s and 70s.

When I was in the Socialist Workers Party at the time and busy raising money or passing out leaflets for the antiwar movement, I would periodically be reminded of the kind of witch-hunting mentality that had never been completely expunged with the repudiation of Joe McCarthy.

If you really want to discover where Bérubé got his ideas, the best place to look are the columns of Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, who red-baited the antiwar movement every chance they got. A November 12, 1969 column could have practically been written by our postmodernist professor. It begins:

The tens of thousands of well-meaning war protestors set to converge on Washington Saturday will be joining a demonstration planned since summer by advocates of violent revolution in the U.S. who openly support Communist forces in Vietnam.

Evans and Novak continue in a vein that reads exactly like an FBI dossier:

The link between Hanoi and elements of the New Mobe was again demonstrated Oct. 14 when Premier Pham Van Dong of North Vietnam sent greetings to American antiwar demonstrators. [Fred] Halstead, the Trotskyite leader, drafted a reply to Hanoi approved by a majority of the New Mobe’s steering committee.

Red-baiting such as this has been fully assimilated by people such as Bérubé, Marc Cooper and David Corn who all wrote “exposés” of the Iraq antiwar movement in the Boston Globe, the Washington Post and other corporate media. Unlike our latter-day “antiwar” liberals, Evans and Novak had the honesty to admit that they were professional anti-Communists, a calling that these rank amateurs can only aspire to.


  1. One of the leaders of the Mobe told me several years ago that Irving Howe wasn’t really pro-war, he was just anti-antiwar. We seem to have a lot of those sorts around again.

    Comment by Doug Henwood — March 27, 2007 @ 3:59 pm

  2. Postmodern indeed, and tiresome. My poet friend Ralph LaCharity used to say of these wiseacres, “words mean what they mean. I have learned this at great cost, even though those lessons seem to be eluding most people these days.”

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — March 27, 2007 @ 4:16 pm

  3. Hitchens in Slate this week called for withdrawel of US trops to Northern Iraq, and denounced Cheney and Rumsfeld. Actually the administration has no place for those pointed headed intellectuals.

    I have a post now on my blog, I’d like your comments on.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — March 28, 2007 @ 2:42 am

  4. Hitchens in Slate this week called for withdrawal of US trops to Northern Iraq, and denounced Cheney and Rumsfeld. Actually the administration has no place for those pointed headed intellectuals.

    I have a post now on my blog, I’d like your comments on.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — March 28, 2007 @ 2:42 am

  5. It is likely, if not inevitable, that some terrorist mastermind in the world enjoys chocolate chip cookies. Assuming that Berube et al. might also enjoy these sweets – or has their bitterness consumed them entirely? – we might easily infer, from their own reasoning, that they are pro-terrorist.

    The absence or presence of fossilized ex-Communists in the anti-war movement has absolutely zero bearing on the validity of that movement. This is guilt by association at its most absurd and obscene.

    I almost laughed out loud at the title of Berube’s missive, “Toward an Ideal Antiwar Movement: Mature, Legitimate, and Popular.” Maybe the follow-up version for when Berube’s friend march on Tehran will include the following addendum: “Now with 20 percent less calories and no carbs.”

    Fuck the fake left.

    Comment by M. Junaid — March 28, 2007 @ 5:45 am

  6. “Red-baiting” is one of those terms, like “homophobia,” whose effect is to stifle debate rather than advance us.

    If behind the curtain of a “war is dangerous to little children” rally is a group that’s perfectly fine with war, say. by Khruschev against Hungary, a fact they don’t advertise at their rallies, call it “red-baiting” if you want but it’s worthy of note. People can choose to come to their rallies with full awareness, or to stay away.

    If some of the “progressive” martyrs of the Hollywood 10 really were members of the Communist Party, that’s an important fact. One can, if one wishes, still choose to defend their civil liberties, but without the smarm. It would be more like the ACLU on the Nazi march in Skokie.

    Calling someone a communist who isn’t, or overemphasizing someone who associates with communists by one or more degrees of separation is something different, of course, but calling someone who is really a communist a communist can be relevant to political debate, “red-baiting” or not.

    Comment by Grumpy Old Man — March 28, 2007 @ 3:16 pm

  7. Advance “it.”

    Comment by Grumpy Old Man — March 28, 2007 @ 3:16 pm

  8. Berube quotes himself worrying about NATO and UN in Shreds because of Iraq War. Leave aside for a moment UN. But NATO?
    Berube claims to be a leftist and worries about NATO’s future. What an Imbecile?
    Anyone with a shred of sense would know NATO is nothing but an instrument for domination at the disposal of US. And here , this muttonhead academic who calls himself a leftist worries about NATO’s future.

    Comment by ajit H — March 28, 2007 @ 5:11 pm

  9. “Red-baiting” a term that stiffles debate? Maybe. It also marks the user as a man of yesterday. The usage dates from an epoch when Communism was a force in the world. Now yesterday’s men love to hear the word “red-baitig”. It makes them think they exist and are not simply playing around on a website deciding who is left of whom.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — March 29, 2007 @ 5:40 am

  10. Cockburn wilfully misrepresents Berube’s position on the Iraq war:

    “Have any of them, from Makiya through Hitchens to Berman and Berube had dark nights, asking themselves just how much responsibility they have for the heaps of dead in Iraq”

    Comment by tibblets — March 31, 2007 @ 8:41 pm

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