Packer, Berman, DeMott, O’Brien – and Iraq

Packer, Berman, DeMott, O’Brien – and Iraq

Michael Bérubé: Packer, Berman, DeMott, O?Brien?and Iraq

Has my ?bad reporting? done a serious disservice to Paul Berman?s position on Iraq? That?s the charge in the latest installment of First of the Year, edited by Benj DeMott.

Here?s the context. First of the Year is, as one might expect, a compilation of essays published in First of the Month during 2010, and DeMott is introducing and defending Charles O?Brien?s review of my book, The Left at War:

O?Brien?s unique standards (and wit) inform his review here of Michael Berube?s The Left at War–a book purporting to comprehend debates on the left over the Iraq War (and the War on Terror). O?Brien zeroes in on the acknowledgements. That might seem unfair but it?s actually a just way of highlighting the profs-first cluelessness of Berube?s college try. The wackness of The Left at War?s academicism didn?t come home to me until I got into the chapter on British cultural theorist Stuart Hall…

?Wackness,? you understand, is a very ?street? term, meant to underscore the academicism of my book. DeMott certainly has the 411! And it?s true, my book does thank various people who read the thing in manuscript, so Charles O?Brien certainly has me there. But my book didn?t purport to comprehend debates about Iraq and the War on Terror. Foolishly, perhaps, it was a bit more ambitious and baggy than that, extending back to debates over Kosovo and trying to address the ?Manichean? habits of mind that have defined the kind of leftism that, over the course of a few decades, devolved into Srebrenica genocide denial and the formation of the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic. I tried to suggest that people like Stuart Hall and Ellen Willis represented, for a variety of reasons that have little to do with the immediate debates about Iraq, a better way to go.

DeMott?s account of things doesn?t get seriously bad, though, until he goes after another target altogether:

His book is good for at least one (unintended) revelation though. Berube revives a dubious claim made by journalist George Packer in his Iraq book, The Assassins? Gate. Packer wrote up a conversation in a bar where one of America?s best-known ?left hawks,? Paul Berman, supposedly displayed an appalling naiveté about the likely consequences of war in Iraq. According to Packer, before the U.S. invasion, Berman said (over drinks) Iraq would soon resemble the East Bloc in 1989. Berman disputes Packer?s account (though Berube wouldn?t know this since he never bothered to check with the defamed man) and, in print, Berman said exactly the opposite, cautioning against such beamish projections about prospects for democracy in Iraq. So what?s the revelation? Thanks to Berube?s bad reporting on that bar fight, I?m now pretty sure the author of The [Character] Assassins? Gate has maligned two writers he once counted among his closest friends and mentors.

Two things need to be said about this. The first is that if you had to read my book to learn of George Packer?s account of that conversation, then you probably didn?t read The Assassins? Gate very carefully. As for whose account of the Packer-Berman conversation is right, I cannot say. But, for the record, I knew very well that Berman disputes Packer?s account.

Ah, if only there were some way one could verify my claim! If only there were some printed words somewhere, something one could look up, like a good reporter…Which brings me to the second thing you could say about this: DeMott didn?t read The Left at War any more carefully than he read The Assassins? Gate. To wit:

Berman has strongly denied having made such an analogy. On March 23, 2006, he wrote to Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly blog, ?Political Animal,? and insisted that Packer?s version of events is ?fiction?:

George is a wonderful writer and a terrific journalist, not to mention a brave and intrepid one. The Assassins’ Gate seems to me, apart from a few passages, truly a superb book. But George is also a novelist, and I can only say that the person who composed that paragraph about me and Prague and the bar was George Packer the novelist. Those particular lines in The Assassins’ Gate are fiction. The paragraph contributes to the magnificent color and drama of his book. But he has invented that conversation.

I didn’t respond to your post back in December because, well, many silly things are said in public, and life is short, and some disputes are too picayune to pursue. I hoped that George’s remark about me and Prague would simply go away. Maybe I hoped (excuse me for this) that no one was reading your blog. Big mistake! The story about me having made a preposterous comparison between Baghdad and Prague circulated, and has gone on doing so, until the Los Angeles Times got hold of it a few weeks ago and ran an op-ed saying that I had compared Baghdad to the Prague Spring of 1968 — which shows how, over time, rumors grow ever more ridiculous.

I am glumly aware that I will never be able to prove that George has invented this story. There was liquor at that bar, but there was no tape recorder, unless the agents of Homeland Security turn out to have been bugging the place. I will never be able to prove absolutely that what I am said to have said is something I could not possibly have said. George himself has made clear that he is going to go to his final hour swearing to the peerless accuracy of his barroom recollections. (Drum, ?A Letter from Paul Berman.?)

That?s in The Left at War, pp. 271-72, n. 29. I don?t get everything right all the time, but I certainly didn?t cite Packer?s claim without citing Berman?s reply.

In the original ?review? that started all this swinging-and-missing from the First of the Month crew, Charles O?Brien had written, in response to my grateful acknowledgment that the National Humanities Center had offered me a month-long fellowship, ?Did it ever occur to [Berube] to quit his job?? No, it never did. But perhaps from now on, O?Brien and DeMott should consider showing up for theirs.

FOR THOSE who are interested, a wide-ranging and well-informed discussion of The Left at War can be found in the most recent issue of Politics and Culture. Here is an excerpt from my interview with the editors:

Gabriel Brahm: Some thoughtful critics, such as David Bromwich for example, have eloquently expressed a poignant sense of disappointment with President Obama. Do you share that feeling?

MB: Yes and no. On the one hand, I want to say that I was so prepared to be disappointed in Obama?not only because of long experience with elected Democrats but also because of my wariness about his record in the Senate?that the first two years of the Obama Administration have thrown the very idea of ?disappointment? into epistemic crisis. What does it mean, after all, to say, ?aha, I am disappointed in precisely the way I expected to be?? Or to say, as Tariq Ali?s most recent book seems to say, ?I am so pleased with myself that I predicted precisely this degree of disappointment?? And then there are the leftists who are actively looking for reasons to be disappointed?the ones who believed that Obama would withdraw from Afghanistan even though he campaigned on intensifying US military operations in Afghanistan, and who now feel betrayed that Obama has broken secret campaign promises that only they could hear.

So let me be more specific. I never expected much from Obama on the economic front. I expected neoliberalism, more or less, and I got more: a bailout of the financial industry, but no jobs program, no WPA, no restoration of the tax code status quo ante Bush, no ?cramdown? on personal bankruptcies following from the home-mortgage meltdown. But I am genuinely surprised, and therefore genuinely disappointed, by Obama?s record on civil liberties. I knew he would escalate in Afghanistan, but I believed him when he said he would close Guantanamo.

That said, I should add that when UN special rapporteur on torture Manfred Nowak said, this past October, that ?there is a major difference between the Bush and the Obama administration,? and that Obama had stopped the Bush-era practices of torture, the response on the keen-to-be-disappointed left was underwhelming. The U.S. is still nowhere near the ideals of international law?witness our punitive detention of accused Wikileaker (a.k.a. patriotic whistleblower) Bradley Manning?but I cannot let severe disappointment devolve into despair.

And speaking of matters of hope and despair: who, on the left, did not feel some small measure of optimism, however guarded, in early 2009? Who did not entertain the thought, ?perhaps now things might get a bit better for ordinary people?? Two groups, so far as I can tell: one consisted of people who were patiently waiting to enjoy their own faux-disappointment when things went sour, and the other consisted of the remnants of the heighten-the-contradictions crew, who sincerely did not want things to get better for the average person. Perhaps some people in both groups now congratulate themselves for their ?realism?: they were not fooled, by gum! But I am not talking about expectations, I am talking about hope. It was reasonable to expect that Obama would not combine the Presidential cojones of FDR and LBJ with the vision of Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman. But what did it mean not to wish for better? What does it mean now, should someone say, ?as for me, I never gave in to hope?I never wanted things to be better than they are??