Thursday, December 09, 2004

Criticism and Self-Criticism, from old friend Bill Burr

It's true, I have only old friends because all of us are old. Except Josh and Chris and Kamila. And Grace, who won't act her age. Here's a post from the guy who edited The Kissinger Transcripts (New Press, 1999), which was reviewed in NYRB, very favorably, by the China hand at this disreputable journal, and then almost retracted when Henry the K played the insider's hand (viz., Don't you want to be invited to the dinner parties I will be hosting next year?). Emphasis on the almost. Great book, great review. Take a look at both, then hold the nose in reading the response from H the K, then bind and gag yourself in reading the reposte. And then ask yourself, would you do this for a dinner party invitation, even if it meant continued access to NYRB? Let's use the vernacular here. Would you give Henry Kissinger a blow job? "Don't be so crude," my son says, as he looks over my shoulder. I say, "Does that mean you want to give H the K a blow job?" He zooms in on the rolling chairs we have in the study, having realized I'm quoting him, and says, "Don't be an asshole, c'mon Dad, you can't do this." I push him away, it's like we're electronic pucks in a hockey game conceived by the guy who gave us PacMan, except my son weighs 230 pounds and he's not going very far. I gotta finish this before he gets back. . .

Jim—As before, I like very much what you’ve been writing in your blog but I have a few quibbles:

1) Your comments on the Vietnam war protests in your most recent post slide over a problem. Yes, there was a mutiny in Vietnam, but it had a symbiotic relationship with protests, etc. at home. Indeed, the mutiny in Vietnam didn’t really begin until Nixon was in power by which point a broad public consensus, deeply influenced by the protests, had formed that the U.S. had to disengage from Southeast Asia Why else was SecDef Melvin Laird, beginning in 1969, sending troops home as quickly as he could (even if Kissinger disagreed with the pace)? I go along with the measured judgment of Jeff Kimball that the anti-war movement "played a key role in restraining the violence in Vietnam, in forcing an earlier withdrawal of U.S. troops, and in making the war stoppable. Its activities... contributed to the weariness of many Americans with a long, frustrating, bloody, and dirty war." I remember you being skeptical about the student protests of those days but let’s give them the credit that’s due.

2) In your wonderful post on “How to Talk to a Conservative,” you treat “political action” as somehow unrelated to “self-discovery and self-government.” I don’t follow the logic here. How can self-government be possible without political action? Why can’t political action be a “site” for self-government? How can there be social reform or the amelioration of social inequities without political action? Don’t they necessarily go hand-in-hand?

3) Your argument about conservatives hating modern liberalism because it is a kissing-cousin, or even closer, to socialism makes much sense. But I think that the roots of this phenomenon may go back earlier than the 1960s. For example, Sen. Robert Taft’s critique of New Deal liberalism was partly based on his opposition to socialism. Although hardly a reactionary (e.g., his support for public housing/fed aid to education), Taft wanted to rein in federal spending and taxes because he believed that overly high taxation led straight to socialism. I have the impression that contemporary conservatives see Taft as one of their forefathers although intellectually he’s more impressive than the current lot.

William Burr
George Washington University