Notes on a crappy book
Richard Goodwin, one of the "Best and the Brightest," speechwriter and adviser to John F. Kennedy. Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties, a flabby liberal whitewashing of history. Hero-worship of a young pretty personification of charismatic egomania whose 1963 assassination was in fact not all that tragic—far less so than King’s and X’s. (Tragedy requires a contrast between promise and reality.) The intelligence of the ‘good and bright’ overwhelmed by an utter lack of wisdom. A McNamaran absence of moral imagination. The Vietnam War was an "error," the Bay of Pigs invasion a "miscalculation," the Reagan terrorism in Central America a "terrible error," and so forth; none of this was fundamentally wrong, because by definition everything we do is done with good intentions. And through it all, this litany of apologetics and qualified self-criticisms, is an abdication of responsibility (even when momentarily admitting that ‘we liberals’ were, despite ourselves, responsible for an error or two): the ultimate truth is that our good intentions were ineffectual in the face of reality, fate, bureaucracy, inertia, whatever abstraction comes to Goodwin’s mind. It’s a rotten book, disgusting.
And the platitudes, my god the pieties! Kennedy the symbol of the American idea, the great man who could have led the country to moral greatness, the “exemplar who led others to discover their own strength and resurgent energy,” the man who “fueled the smoldering embers” of the 1960s (terrible writing), who could do no wrong even when he did wrong because at heart he was a hero for the ages, and of course don’t forget the gloriousness of America as a symbol, an eternal beacon of light, the ideal of a restless, searching people who expanded to occupy a continent (let’s not talk about those other people who had already occupied it for millennia)… But now, alas, we’ve become a nation of cynics! Ah, if only we had continued to follow the light of reason, the inner American in us all! Woe are we who have lost our faith! –This nostalgic liberal apotheosis of Kennedy and America and democracy and freedom evinces a mind-boggling moral and intellectual immaturity, a stunning childishness in thought and deed. It signifies little more than the liberal intellectual’s celebration of himself, his defense of himself: ‘Yes, some of the things we did were wrong: we were too idealistic! We didn’t understand the evils of the world. We thought we could use reason to remake the world, but alas, the world is an unreasonable place.’ Astonishing, despicable shallowness, being so self-blind as not to see that one’s effusive praise of the so-called American idea is nothing but effusive praise of oneself. It’s also totally stupid in its own right. Christianity is a far more rational religion than this liberal American one.
The book is enlightening, however, as a window into the mind of the Harvard liberal, revelatory of the sort of thoughts this kind of person has, his worldview. Liberalism from the inside. A prettified ideology, bland but appealing, with the reference to spiritual truths, reason, ideals of harmony and peace, a rising tide lifting all boats, the fundamental compatibility of all interests in society (except for those we don’t like, of course), the nonexistence of class struggle, government’s ability to solve all social ills, history as a progressive battle between knowledge and ignorance, light and darkness, reason and unreason, open-mindedness and bigotry, and any other set of binary abstractions you can think of. The whole ideology hovers above reality in the heavenly mists of Hope and Progress. It’s all very pretty, hence its momentary resurgence—which succumbed to disillusionment—with Barack Obama. And hence its ability to get through the filters of the class structure, to become an element in the hegemonic American discourse, floating above institutional realities like some imaginary golden idol one worships in lieu of common sense. It serves a very useful purpose for business, averting people’s eyes from the essential incompatibility of class interests toward the idea of Gradual Progress by means of tinkering at the margins, making nice policies.
One is almost surprised at the contradiction in people like Richard Goodwin and Arthur Schlesinger, on up to Robert Reich and Paul Krugman, between native intelligence and blind liberal stupidity. But institutions mold people to fit into them—or rather, they mold those people who are willing to be molded, i.e., who are ambitious and obedient. However intelligent you are, if you’re ambitious you’re going to have to let yourself be taught to believe what you have to believe in order to fit into your chosen institution. Thus arises the phenomenon of apparently brilliant people who you suddenly notice have this gigantic blind-spot in their mind that underpins their brilliant maneuverings.