First Things ﬁrst, dictators in Vogue
The Left at War
I was rather disappointed with your editorial statement on foreign policy (“Bernie’s World”), which repeated many of the talking points of the “anti-imperialist” left about Syria. One can certainly understand why the editors would fall short on Syria. With so many other smart magazines publishing articles that could have been lifted from RT.com, it is difficult to swim against the stream. After all, who would want to be associated with a struggle against Bashar al-Assad, who in his genial clean-shaven and well-groomed manner seems to be much more like us than the unfathomable, bearded Allahu akbar–yelling men in fatigues who would surely launch an attack on the American homeland if given half a chance? If Vogue was willing to run a profile on the Syrian president and his lovely wife a while back, who are we to quibble? After all, being photogenic compensates for bombing hospitals.
The editors are generally OK with Sanders except on foreign policy. They fret over his suggestion that the US strengthen its ties to Saudi Arabia and Qatar since the two countries are major donors to “the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (also supported by the US) and the Islamic State.” In fact, Qatar insisted that it would only give money to al-Nusra if the group severed its ties to al Qaeda. When negotiations broke down in 2015, the group continued to finance its own militias in Syria the way it always has, through donations by sympathizers in various Sunni countries, including Qatar. Does this mean that Qatar backs al-Nusra? Only in the sense that the US backed the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s when most of its funding came from US citizens, living especially in Boston’s South End. Nor does the US support al-Nusra. The country has bombed the group repeatedly, always making the excuse that it was after the Khorasan — a nonexistent group that supposedly had plans to launch September 11–type attacks in America.
The editors also criticize the Vietnam antiwar movement for failing to “anchor itself within the party structure,” a clear reference to becoming a wing of the Democratic party. In 1937, when Chicago steelworkers went on strike, Mayor Edward Kelly — a Democratic “friend of labor” who was backed by the Communist party and as such would ostensibly be loath to attack workers — ordered an attack by the cops that left ten people dead. The antiwar movement kept the Democratic party at arm’s length because it was led by the Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers party, who had a much more class-based understanding of the Democrats than the CPUSA. The CP, which worked with the SWP and the pacifists in a kind of tripartite coalition, was always trying to get the coalition to follow the Democrats’ lead. If it had been successful, there never would have been a Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam or any other mass demonstration. You can take my word on that.
— Louis Proyect
The editors reply:
Louis Proyect writes that we and others on the left are insufficiently willing to confront Bashar al-Assad because we have been duped by his haircut and a Vogue puff piece that described the dictator and his wife as “wildly democratic.” Not only do we not think that “being photogenic compensates for bombing hospitals” — we don’t think this of Obama, either — we can’t find any liberal or left-wing writer who thinks of Assad as “genial.” With their profile, Vogue’s editors executed a flawless caricature of themselves as clueless fashionistas, and that is how the profile was received everywhere. The reaction was so overwhelmingly negative that the piece was taken down from the magazine’s website.
Is the idea that we are “appeasing” Assad? That was the idea the last time the US foreign policy establishment began to dream of ousting a Middle Eastern dictator. In a kind of ritual humiliation, liberals and leftists were required, like kids reciting the Bill of Rights in class, to demonstrate that they understood Saddam’s crimes against humanity before they could voice any objection to America’s military involvement in the region. That we might still be subject to this ritual isn’t surprising, but it is a bummer.
That the US has bombed al Nusra Front groups in Syria on occasion does not mean the US hasn’t also supported al Nusra on occasion. Alternately supporting and attacking various groups and figures (among them, Saddam Hussein) is a recurring motif in the history of US’s military involvement in the Middle East. And while Qatar may also have had a falling-out with the group in 2015, a report from last December described a prisoner swap between al Nusra and Lebanon that Qatari officials encouraged by giving al Nusra $25 million. The US has also tracked shipments of Qatari arms directed to the Islamist groups that further destabilized Libya in the wake of the Western intervention there. Qatar’s relationship with al Nusra has had its ups and downs, but the country has long served as a key source of funds and materials for extremists in the region.
With respect to Bernie Sanders, Proyect does not voice an objection to our claim that for all the candidate’s galvanizing rhetoric on domestic policy, there remains too little distance between his foreign policy views and those of the Democratic party mainstream, especially with respect to the use of force. His efforts to make the party platform use the word occupation when discussing Palestine are welcome, but in the immediate aftermath of the Orlando nightclub shooting, his campaign tweeted, “From what is now known, this was a terrorist act by an ISIS sympathizer. That despicable and barbaric organization must be destroyed.” But Omar Mateen had no real connection to ISIS — he sympathized with the group like Richard Ramirez, the “Night Stalker,” sympathized with Satan. To watch Sanders fall back on this bogus war-on-terror logic is to see the full impoverishment of the Democratic party’s foreign policy thought. Proyect says that the Vietnam-era antiwar movement had good reasons to keep its distance from the party, that to engage more fully would have prevented even a single mass demonstration from taking place. That may be true, and yet the movement’s failure to make a more permanent place for itself in the country’s party politics during the postwar years is a failure — one we hope can be remedied soon.
George Blaustein promises us “religious stereotyping” and “conspiratorial thinking” in his remembrance of Antonin Scalia (“Miracles and Mummeries”), and he does not fail. As an editor of First Things, I have joined in some of the conspiracies he describes, and as a dogmatic Catholic, I fulfill some of the stereotypes. From this position, I’ll offer two objections and one amen.
According to Blaustein, Scalia was guilty of “recalcitrance, absolutism, and scorn,” and a “hermetic disregard for the real suffering of people” to boot. Blaustein aims this hail of accusations at the deceased’s interpretation of the Second Amendment. I don’t happen to share Scalia’s views on the Second Amendment (you can regulate guns all you like — just don’t try to take away my Remington 870 Wingmaster 12-gauge), but I wonder what could justify such abuse. There is a range of views on gun control, even on the left. Why are only conservatives suspected of heartlessness in opposing it?
About those conservatives: Blaustein’s essay is a remembrance not only of Scalia but also of the religious right, which he sees Trump as burying. He’s correct. Trump was opposed by the most religious primary voters, and his success has marginalized conservative Christianity. Blaustein thinks this is good, and I suspect most of his readers do as well. Who wouldn’t be happy to see the religious right give up the ghost?
Christianity is a religion of losers. It responds to the plight of the weak with the song of Mary: “He has shown the strength of his arm. He has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and he has lifted up the lowly.” The force of such statements is what made the more religious elements of the Bush Administration try to implement a “compassionate conservatism.” Whatever one thinks of that kind of politics, I cannot imagine anyone on the left preferring the alternative. Trump, with his ceaseless glorification of winners, shows us the face of an irreligious right. It wears a sneer.
Oliver Wendell Holmes wished that “every word of moral significance could be banished from the law altogether” so that its interpretation could be conducted as a technical exercise. Scalia tried to live that hope. Blaustein thinks, as I do, that such an approach to law is impossible. As Hadley Arkes has argued for years in the pages of First Things, we cannot separate moral considerations from the law any more than we can from politics, love, art, or anything else. Blaustein’s correction of Scalia on this point allows me to end with amen.
— Matthew Schmitz
George Blaustein replies:
I am grateful for Matthew Schmitz’s objections and for the amen. To the first objection, about heartlessness and the Second Amendment: Scalia’s originalism did not pretend not to be heartless, but it did pretend to be historically sound. So I should clarify the point: Scalia’s reading of the Second Amendment in District of Columbia v. Heller was a violation of his own professed jurisprudential creed. If there is an individual right to own a gun, that right is not what the original Second Amendment protected.
The second objection — about the wrench Trump has thrown into the Republican party and the religious right — moves me more, because I am wary of left/liberal schadenfreude on this topic. Trump’s marginalization of the religious right is “good” only in the roundabout sense that a bad thing sabotaging a different kind of bad thing is good. Imagine that two negatives, in the process of making a positive, somehow also turned all of mathematics into a racist reality show. (I struggle for the correct analogy.) I would not choose Trump’s sneer over Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” or an irreligious right over a religious one. But I hate to think those are the only options. The next line of the song of Mary tells us that God “hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.” Christianity should do more than simply temper the cruelties of political conservatism.
Here to Help
As a person currently jobbing in the unhappy world of “social service,” it was affirming to see, in Sarah Resnick’s “H.” (Issue 24), a social worker cast not only as a cog in the Nonprofit Industrial Complex’s humiliating disciplining machine but as “someone who can help manage your various appointments, who knows what services you are eligible for, who can connect you with the things you need, who you can talk to about your private thoughts,” as well. Reagan-Clinton-era “from the government and here to help” shame still pervades the discipline, which often seems saddled with the worst neuroses of both political poles. It’s hard to remember that some things are still helpful, sometimes, to some people.
Resnick’s account demonstrates poign-antly how unhelpful the ways we’ve learned — been taught — to think about drug trouble are. The standard medico-talk obscures the social truth, which is that drugs present dangers to everyone, but present them most intensely to very poor people. I’ve come to see drug overuse as a sort of solution to nihilism: it offers an infinite loop of purpose, pursuit, and reward — a pure form of meaning. So where there’s no dream to hold against it, the drug dream often wins.
— Jonah Galeota-Sprung