A few months after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Michael Walzer wrote an article for Dissent, “Can There Be a Decent Left?,” which made a number of American leftists rather mad. In it, Michael reproached those who saw the mass murders ordered by Osama Bin Laden as revenge for “the crimes of the imperial state.” Too many radicals responded to the grief of their fellow citizens and their desire that al-Qaeda be punished by saying, in effect, that we Americans had it coming. That response was, Michael wrote, an indecent act, that instead, “what is necessary now is an engagement with our fellow citizens that recognizes the fellowship. We can be as critical as we like, but these are people whose fate we share; we are responsible for their safety as they are for ours, and our politics has to reflect that mutual responsibility.”
Michael is a supremely rational man, whose careful, lucid writings on moral philosophy and political theory are read and admired all over the world. But his works of reason are driven by a passion, as that controversial piece made clear. “Connected criticism,” Michael has called it, the need to be fully, ardently involved with the society you inhabit if you really desire to help change it. “Courage, compassion, and a good eye are three virtues that good critics need. . . ,” he wrote, “men and women of common virtue and ordinary humanity.”
Those qualities have marked Michael’s thousands of contributions to this magazine as writer and editor since his first article—a witty report on the struggles of the Communist Party to shed its Stalinist skin—appeared some fifty-seven years ago. He criticizes both fiercely and patiently, confident that authors will be grateful for a type of engagement few periodicals still offer. With his own good eye, he regularly rescues the fresh, enlightening promise of a piece from the muck of ideological cant. He mistrusts anyone who writes about political ideas and commitments who does not make frequent use of the word “but.”
Decency is not a word often used today to describe someone’s politics; it can easily be taken as a banal synonym for mere niceness or decorum. But the decency of Michael Walzer is of a more fundamental and profound kind; it leads him to show, by example, how one ought to think and act about fixing an awkwardly crafted article or debating a contentious issue or remedying a manifest injustice or preventing, waging, and stopping a war.
The distinguished authors of the three pieces we publish here all know Michael very well and write knowingly about the approach he has always taken to grappling with big ideas and producing this little magazine. They serve as a modest tribute to his steady work at Dissent, as he retires as co-editor—a decision I wholly regret but, as with anything Michael decides, fully understand. Fortunately, he will keep writing for us—and quietly help us p...
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