How two activist journalists became the new faces of left-wing anti-Americanism.
On August 18, security officers at London’s Heathrow Airport detained a Brazilian named David Miranda. They did so under the United Kingdom’s Terrorism Act, which allows authorities to hold an individual for up to nine hours if they believe him to be in possession of “information which he knows or believes might be of material assistance” to terrorists. The officers seized Miranda’s cellphone, camera, laptop, encrypted memory sticks, and external hard drive.
Miranda is the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who, since June, has broken a series of stories about programs conducted by the National Security Agency and other Western intelligence services, all based upon leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. One such program, Prism, enables the NSA to gather data from Internet companies; Greenwald also revealed the existence of a top-secret court order that gave the agency access to telephone record logs, or “metadata,” from Verizon. Greenwald and others portrayed these legal programs in Orwellian terms, writing cryptically of sinister “mass surveillance,” as if every human being’s phone calls and emails were being overheard and read by analysts.
Miranda had been traveling from Berlin—where he had met with Laura Poitras, an American documentary filmmaker collaborating with Greenwald and Snowden—to Rio de Janeiro, where he lives with Greenwald. Even as the detention was ongoing, Greenwald was furiously depicting it as the workings of an authoritarian state bent on silencing its critics. “This was obviously designed to send a message of intimidation to those of us working journalistically on reporting on the NSA and its British counterpart,” he fumed in a blog post published the following day. Greenwald then went on to compare the British government’s “simply despotic” behavior unfavorably to the Mob, writing that “even the Mafia had ethical rules against targeting the family members of people they felt threatened by. But the UK puppets and their owners in the U.S. national-security state obviously are unconstrained by even those minimal scruples.”
Many other journalists and activists were quick to accept the line that Miranda had been targeted merely by dint of his relationship to Greenwald. Amnesty International released this statement: “There is simply no basis for believing that David Michael Miranda presents any threat whatsoever to the UK government. The only possible intent behind this detention was to harass him and his partner, Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, for his role in analyzing the data released by Edward Snowden.”
Not so, according to Oliver Robbins, Britain’s deputy national-security adviser, who told a court two weeks later that Miranda had been in possession of roughly 58,000 “highly classified UK intelligence documents,” a “large proportion” of which are “either secret or top secret.” The “disclosure of the material could put the lives of British intelligence agents or their families at risk,” Robbins wrote, and “the general public could also be endangered if details about intelligence operations or methods fell into the wrong hands.”
Even if Greenwald and the Guardian had no intention of publishing this information, it is almost a certainty that it has already fallen into the wrong hands. Snowden initially fled to Hong Kong (where he publicly divulged details about Washington’s spying on China), before gaining temporary asylum in Russia; it is reasonable to assume that both Moscow and Beijing are in possession of everything he stole while working for Booz Allen Hamilton, the NSA contractor that employed him for all of three months. Writing in the National Interest, John R. Schindler, a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College and a former NSA intelligence analyst, surmised that “it could take many millions, perhaps billions, of dollars to repair the harm done, and some losses may be irreparable at any cost.”
That Miranda was carrying information about the identities and whereabouts of British undercover agents was nowhere to be found in Greenwald’s angry blog posts and interviews, nor in the distressed complaint issued by Amnesty International. Nor was it mentioned in any of the outraged statements by those media critics and journalists who, ever since the Pentagon Papers case, have developed a theory of “press freedom” that only pays lip service to governmental claims of needing to protect national-security secrets. While the Pentagon Papers dispute set an important precedent in solidifying America’s unparalleled tradition of freedom of the press, it has also left an unfortunate legacy in perpetuating a belief that the government always exaggerates the need for secrecy and that journalists who expose government secrets are never wrong to do so.
Upon the revelation that Miranda was trafficking in stolen secrets, the story peddled by Greenwald, his employer, and his partner began to change. Immediately after having been detained, Miranda told the press: “I don’t look at documents. I don’t even know if it was documents that I was carrying.” Miranda’s lawyers now say that “Mr. Miranda does not accept the assertions [UK authorities] have made,” implying that he did have knowledge of what sort of information he was ferrying. Greenwald tried to mitigate the damage by claiming that no information thus far released has harmed American or British national-security interests. That assertion has been contradicted by the British government, which claims it has redeployed personnel due to Greenwald’s disclosures. Hinting at what motivated his disclosures, Greenwald boasted that “the only thing that has been harmed are the political interests and reputations of UK and U.S. officials around the world.”
In 1975, former Central Intelligence Agency officer Philip Agee published his Inside the Company: CIA Diary, which exposed the identities of some 250 American intelligence assets; he would ultimately reveal the names of more than 2,000. Due to his revelations, several American and British agents were killed. Agee worked closely with the Soviet KGB and Cuban security services, and, as a result of his American passport being revoked, he embarked on a long sojourn through the Communist world, finally ending up in Havana, where he died in 2008.
There is a word for men like Agee and Snowden—men who betray their country, their country’s allies, their comrades, and defect to a hostile state. It is an ancient one: traitor. As Democratic Senate Majority leader Harry Reid described Snowden to the Reno Gazette-Journal: “I think Snowden is a traitor, and I think he has hurt our country, and I hope someday he is brought to justice.” Supporters of Snowden and Bradley Manning (the former Army private who released more than a quarter million classified diplomatic cables to the anarchist web collective WikiLeaks and who was recently sentenced to 35 years in prison after being found guilty of violating the Espionage Act) claim that the men are “whistleblowers.” Far from betraying their country, both men’s backers say, they in fact served it by revealing egregious wrongdoing.
That explanation would have some weight if either man had been discriminating in his leaks, or gone through legal channels to divulge the information, instead of sharing it with less-than-salubrious figures such as Julian Assange and Vladimir Putin. “He has taken an oath,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said in June on CBS’s Face the Nation with respect to Snowden. “These oaths mean something. If you can’t keep the oath, get out. And then do something about it in a legal way.” Snowden did not begin working at Booz Allen Hamilton until March 2013. It was a job he took with the explicit goal of pilfering sensitive national-security information.
After he sought asylum in Russia, the image of Snowden in the minds of most Americans shifted from that of whistleblower to unsavory character. But Greenwald, who argued that Snowden had no choice but to seek asylum because of America’s totalitarian judicial system, was not among the majority. Were Snowden to return to the United States, Greenwald told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, he would face “the standard whistleblower treatment that the United States government gives to people, which is to put them in a cage for decades and render them incommunicado.” Greenwald repeated this accusation on ABC’s This Week: “Whistleblowers in the United States are put into prison for decades and basically ‘disappeared.’” Greenwald never bothered to specify which “whistleblowers” have “disappeared” or been rendered “incommunicado,” words that evoke Latin American dictatorships throwing people out of helicopters into the ocean. Only one government employee has received jail time under the Obama administration for revealing classified information, and the punishment has been 30 months.
The word traitor may not apply legally to Greenwald, but his role as the privileged publisher rather than thief of such classified information (indeed, Snowden never communicates on his own, but always through an intermediary such as Greenwald, Poitras, or WikiLeaks) does not absolve him of culpability in harming the national-security interests of the United States. Greenwald and other publicizers of Snowden, Manning, and WikiLeaks are engaged in a sinister enterprise that, while purporting to forward a benign agenda of promoting “transparency,” is singularly aimed at exposing the national-security secrets of the United States and its closest allies, all with a view to embarrassing Western governments by portraying them as authoritarian states that have grievously betrayed their purported ideals. They are not traitors themselves, but they serve as public-relations coordinators of treasonous actors. They are working to make traitorous actions seem valiant. Call it “treason chic.”
Writing of Communist fellow travelers in The New Meaning of Treason (1964), British essayist and novelist Rebecca West observed: “Of the other virtues, patriotism, it is to be remarked, was the first to get its dismissal. It was naive for a man to feel any conviction that his own country was the best, or even as good as any other country; just as it was naive to believe that the soldiers of any foreign army committed atrocities or to doubt that any English soldier or sailor or colonial administrator failed to do so.” Such a description perfectly describes Greenwald and other journalists of his ilk, who endlessly bemoan the (highly exaggerated) wrongdoings of the Western democracies, all while ignoring the crimes of their authoritarian adversaries. If patriotism has become passé, “the last refuge of scoundrels” in our post-national, wired world, then treason has become the sign of the truly independent and “brave” thinker who is beholden to no state.
Such figures are, instead, anti-beholden—to the United States. Examine the way, for instance, that Greenwald selectively views the disclosure of classified information, particularly the identities of undercover agents. It was not long ago that Greenwald and many of the same people now praising Snowden as a “whistleblower” were calling for the heads of those individuals they believed had revealed the name of an undercover CIA officer: Valerie Plame. “In disclosing to reporters the classified information of Plame’s CIA employment, what [former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney “Scooter”] Libby did was wrong and almost certainly illegal,” Greenwald wrote in 2005. Ironically, it was Agee’s exposés—cheered wildly at the time by left-wing critics of American foreign policy, Greenwald’s political progenitors—that led Congress to pass the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act. This was the very law invoked to justify a special prosecutor’s investigation into the leaking of Plame’s identity, an investigation Greenwald lustily applauded.
Contrast Greenwald’s contempt for those who leaked the identity of Plame with his reaction to the plight of Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor who sparked a diplomatic crisis with Pakistan in 2011 after shooting two men dead in Lahore. Davis claimed the men had tried to attack him, and that he had acted in self-defense. Washington insisted that Davis was a State Department employee and thus protected by diplomatic immunity, a claim it would later have to retract after the Guardian irresponsibly revealed his true identity. Upon learning that the New York Times had initially heeded a U.S. government request not to disclose the details of Davis’s employment for fear of his safety, Greenwald sneered that the paper was “an active enabler of government propaganda.” Greenwald’s blatant inconsistency on the matter of covert identities suggests that he supports the divulgence of America’s clandestine activities when it can be used to slander his country and endanger its personnel, and opposes it only when it fits his own political agenda.
Another prominent journalist who criticized the American government’s reaction to the Davis episode was Jeremy Scahill, a contributor to the Nation and the radio program “Democracy Now!” Scahill essentially took the side of Pakistan, faulting the United States for deigning to send covert agents there without first informing the Pakistani government, carrying out drone attacks on Pakistani soil (which Davis was presumably aiding through his intelligence work), and for even operating clandestinely in the country at all. “The case highlights the fact that the U.S. is engaged in a covert war in Pakistan—a country it has not declared war against,” he complained to Al Jazeera, thus conflating American attempts to root out terrorists in a country that has been reluctant to do so itself, with waging war “against” the Pakistani state. The U.S. government’s claim that Davis was not a spy, and its attempt to free him from the Pakistani mob, Scahill wrote dismissively, was a “show” with an “ending” that “was carefully choreographed by both governments” (as if American officials should have blown the cover of one of their own spies, in what is perhaps the most anti-American country on earth). In killing Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil without giving Pakistani authorities prior warning, Barack Obama did precisely what he promised to do in a 2008 presidential debate with John McCain. But in the eyes of Scahill, with the use of “drones, cruise missiles, and Special Ops raids, the United States has embarked on a mission to kill its way to victory.”
In the past several years, Scahill has emerged as one of the most outspoken and oft-quoted national-security reporters in the country. Beginning his journalism career as a writer and producer for a variety of hard-left publications and media programs, he has gone on to publish two bestselling books while appearing frequently on popular television and radio programs. The publication of his latest book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, was accompanied by the release of an expensively produced documentary film by the same name. The book and movie establish Scahill as one of the most vocal left-wing critics of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy.
And yet, despite his newfound mainstream acceptance, Scahill has barely disguised the ideologies that have always underpinned his work: a fundamental hostility toward capitalism, the United States, and its democratic allies. It is these passions that, in turn, spawned a career devoted to undermining America’s foreign policy and intelligence operations.
Born in 1974 in suburban Milwaukee, Scahill dropped out of the University of Wisconsin in 1995 because “I thought my time would be better spent by entering the struggle for justice in this country.” That year, he met Philip Berrigan, the radical former priest who was a member of the pacifist trifecta: the Baltimore 4 (whose members poured their own blood over draft records), the Catonsville 9 (which burned draft cards in homemade napalm), and the Harrisburg 7 (charged with attempting to kidnap then–Secretary of State Henry Kissinger). Scahill moved into Berrigan’s Baltimore commune, Jonah House, dedicated to the principles of “nonviolence, resistance, and community.” In 1996, foreshadowing his later work as a champion of Snowden, Scahill joined an attempted break-in of the NSA, the “brains of the military death machine,” as Berrigan described it. That same year, Scahill was arrested (alongside former Chicago 7 member David Dellinger and the son of Abbie Hoffman) for the attempted occupation of a Chicago federal building in support of Native American activist Leonard Peltier, who murdered two FBI agents in 1975. In 1998, Scahill was arrested once again, this time at Andrews Air Force Base, accompanying protesters who poured blood on a B-52.
During that period, Scahill moved into journalism, working as a producer for “Democracy Now!” Though the line of work might have seemed different than “peace” activism, the mission was the same. “I think that being alive in the times that we live in means to be a resister,” he said in 2007. “For me, media is a nonviolent weapon in that struggle.” In 1998, he and host Amy Goodman won a series of journalism prizes for a program alleging that Chevron was responsible for the deaths of two environmental activists who had occupied an oil platform in the Niger Delta. In 2008, an American jury unanimously exonerated Chevron of all charges in the case.
Following a brief stint as a producer on Michael Moore’s short-lived television show, The Awful Truth, Scahill trekked to the Balkans to cover the tail end of Yugoslavia’s bloody break-up for “Democracy Now!” and a variety of socialist magazines and websites. And here he displayed a propensity for siding with whomever the United States opposed, no matter how evil.
In Kosovo, still a province of Serbia, the majority ethnic Albanian population bore the brunt of violent Serb nationalism at the hands of President Slobodan Milosevic. Serb militias regularly carried out massacres of civilians, and by the end of 1998 they had driven some 300,000 Albanians from their homes. When Serbian negotiators refused a demand from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to remove most of their troops from Kosovo and grant the province autonomy, NATO, led by the United States and Great Britain, launched a 78-day bombing campaign.
While Kosovo Albanians no doubt committed offenses against Serbs, particularly after the NATO bombing run left them as victors, what lay at the heart of the Kosovo conflict were the same factors that sparked the Bosnian war years earlier: Serb ethnic chauvinism and territorial expansionism. Yet Scahill saw the situation differently. In addition to frequent condemnations of NATO and Western leaders such as President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and U.S. General Wesley Clark, Scahill’s work during the period was focused almost exclusively on isolated incidents of violence committed by ethnic Albanians—to the exclusion of the vast, methodical ethnic-cleansing campaign carried out by the Serbs, whom he portrayed as the true victims.
Scahill’s overriding thesis of the Kosovo conflict is that it was the United States that was the guilty party. “Under his rule, the nation of Yugoslavia was destroyed, dismantled, and chopped into ethnically pure para-states,” Scahill wrote—of Clinton, not Milosevic. What really irked Scahill was not the impending mass genocide of ethnic Albanians, but that NATO had acted without a UN Security Council resolution. Kosovo was “Clinton’s Iraq,” Scahill fumed in 2008. “He bombed Yugoslavia for 78 days with no United Nations mandate.”
During the war itself, Scahill reported from Belgrade, the Serb capital, where he reliably provided the Serb narrative that they were the victims of Western, imperialist aggression. The Rambouillet Agreement, which Serbia rejected (thereby triggering the NATO bombing), was akin to “one of Don Corleone’s famous offers.” While he filed dispatch after sympathetic dispatch from an enemy capital in wartime, Scahill did not report from Kosovo until after the conflict had ended and Albanian reprisals against Serbs began. The province, he wrote in 2000, “has become a living hell for Serbs, Roma people (Gypsies), Slavic Muslims, and other minorities….Washington is giving ethnic cleansing a green light.”
It was curious that, of all the events that took place in the Balkans in the 1990s, it was the postwar expulsion of Serbs from Kosovo that Scahill would label “ethnic cleansing.” During the Kosovo war itself, the Serbs launched Operation Horseshoe, in which they drove out almost the entire Albanian population. The expulsion of 1.3 million people amounted to, in the words of future U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, “the single largest European exodus in a half a century.” Serb militias separated women and children from men, thousands of whom were slaughtered and whose bodies were dumped into mass graves or incinerated. The Serbs’ behavior in Kosovo prompted President Clinton to accuse them of “deliberate, systemic efforts at genocide.” Scahill, meanwhile, dismissed war supporters’ “exaggerations” of Serb atrocities. He is far less judicious when it comes to the United States and Israel. American policy in Iraq “from 1990 to the present,” Scahill claimed, constitutes “one of the greatest mass slaughters in history.” In 2010, during a debate on MSNBC, Scahill accused Israel of perpetrating “extermination campaigns” against Palestinians.
Long after the conflict had ended, Scahill continued to display his sympathies for the Serbian aggressors. Milosevic’s death in 2006 meant the loss of “the only man in the unique position of being able to expose and detail the full extent of the U.S. role in the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s….Sadly, with Milosevic will likely die the last hope the victims of these crimes in Yugoslavia had of getting their day (if it could even be called that) in court—a tragic and unjust reality to begin with that speaks volumes about the twisted state of international justice.” Note here that Scahill was expressing sorrow for the victims of American “crimes,” not Milosevic’s.
Scahill’s big break would come in 2007 thanks to the emerging notoriety of Blackwater, the private security contractor hired to protect American diplomats in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other dangerous locales. That year, Scahill published Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, a breathless exposé of the company and its alleged misdeeds. The firm was a perfect target for Scahill because it married the two things most hated by the left: capitalism and war. Scahill’s thesis was a barely concealed rehash of the old Marxist dictum that the latter is an inevitable result of the former. Blackwater, he wrote, “operates in a demand-based industry where corporate profits are intimately linked to an escalation of violence.”
Not long after the book was published, a firefight involving Blackwater guards erupted at a square in Baghdad in which 17 Iraqis died. The Iraqi government said the guards fired indiscriminately; Blackwater claimed its men had been ambushed. The event, soon dubbed the Nisour Square Massacre by Blackwater critics, led to congressional hearings, a slew of lawsuits against the company, and Scahill’s propulsion into journalistic stardom. The paperback version of Blackwater, which became a bestseller, was blurbed by film star Scarlett Johansson. “It should be mandatory reading,” she gushed. “It’s very interesting—and scary.”
To Scahill, Blackwater was a “mercenary army,” whose founder, former Navy SEAL Erik Prince, is a “committed ideologue.” The protection of American diplomats in hostile environments overseas was just a cover for Blackwater’s true aim: to serve as a “Christian supremacist fighting force” in a grand plot to “eliminate Muslims and destroy Islam globally.” According to Scahill, “the outsourcing of U.S. military operations in Muslim countries and in secular societies to such neo-crusaders reinforces the greatest fears of many in the Arab world and other opponents of the administration’s wars.” Scahill’s evidence of the company’s “neo-crusader” ethos was, to be charitable, thin; he cited the membership of one former Blackwater executive in the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a lay Catholic service organization, to claim that “some Blackwater executives even boast of their membership” in the group.
Throughout his writings on Blackwater, Scahill ascribed powers to the company it did not have. He refers to Blackwater repeatedly as a “private army” and writes as if the firm’s guards participated regularly in combat operations alongside American soldiers. “If foreign governments are not on board,” Scahill writes, “foreign soldiers—many of whose home countries oppose the U.S. wars—can still be enlisted, at a price.” But the prospect of a private army marching off to fight undeclared, illegal wars at the behest of warmongers in Washington is the stuff of fiction. Neither Blackwater, nor any other contractor, has been hired for combat operations—that is, deploying alongside American or allied soldiers to engage the enemy in the theater of war. (From 2004 to 2009, Blackwater was contracted by the CIA to assist in its campaign of targeting terrorists. The assistance was limited to tasks such as providing security for CIA officers and loading Hellfire missiles.) Private contractors have, of course, found themselves involved in combat, but in the course of protecting diplomats and facilities in war zones.
On the whole, Blackwater guards performed heroically, as in 2004 when a team of eight held off a group of gunmen loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr while defending a Coalition Provisional Authority building in Najaf. In 2007, Blackwater guards saved the Polish ambassador to Iraq after a roadside bomb struck his convoy. Scahill failed to note that the company had a 100 percent success record in keeping American diplomats safe, a stunning accomplishment considering the daily death toll in Iraq at the height of its insurgency. “Blackwater is getting a bad rap,” complained Barack Obama, who was protected by Blackwater guards, when he was a senator in 2008.
In order to exaggerate the extent of private military contractors operating in war zones, Scahill has frequently presented erroneous—and inconsistent—data. The contractor corps, he claimed in a 2009 appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, “constitutes more than half of the fighting force in Afghanistan.” In a 2007 Salon article he referred to “the second largest force in Iraq” as the “estimated 126,000 private military ‘contractors.’” In another article published that same year he wrote: “The 145,000 active-duty U.S. forces are nearly matched” in numbers by employees of “companies like Blackwater USA and the former Halliburton subsidiary KBR.” In Blackwater, he referred to “tens of thousands of mercenaries” in Iraq. About the four Blackwater employees lynched in Fallujah by an Iraqi mob in March 2004, Scahill wrote: “Those men who died at Fallujah were members of Washington’s largest partner in the coalition of the willing in Iraq—bigger than Britain’s total deployment,” which, at the time, was some 9,000 soldiers.
But not according to a Congressional Budget Office report published in 2008. “As of late 2007,” the report read, “about 40 percent of the approximately 6,700 contractor personnel working for [the Department of State] in Iraq were providing security.” In other words, fewer than 3,000 men working for all “private military contractors” were under arms. That is a far cry from the “tens of thousands” or over 100,000 Scahill would regularly claim. In Afghanistan, while it’s true that, at the time of his statement, there were more contractors there than American soldiers, it is preposterous to allege that a significant number or even a majority of them were part of any “fighting force.” As for Blackwater itself, then–House Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman said in 2007 that “122 Blackwater employees, one-seventh of the company’s current work force in Iraq, have been terminated for improper conduct.” This would mean there were no more than 850 Blackwater employees in Iraq at the time. Indeed, Scahill contradicts himself in his own book, writing that Blackwater has a mere “2,300 private soldiers deployed in nine countries.”
There are legitimate concerns presented by the use of private military contractors, namely relating to oversight of their behavior in war zones (unlike soldiers, they are not bound by the Uniform Code of Military Justice). But Scahill does not concern himself primarily with such questions. Posing as a defender of the prerogatives of the U.S. military in the face of creeping privatization, Scahill seeks to weaken what he sees as a core element of American foreign policy. “Both Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker made clear that without Blackwater and its ilk, the occupation [of Iraq] would not be tenable,” Scahill writes. In other words: no Blackwater, no American presence in Iraq. “It helped keep a draft, which would make the continuation of the war politically untenable, off the table,” he writes. The government just “rented an occupation force” with soldiers who “were used as cheap cannon fodder.” If the government were to punish the “mercenary firms with indictments for war crimes or murder or human rights violations,” it “would make wars like the one in Iraq far more difficult and arguably impossible.” And so Scahill sets out to discredit and disparage Blackwater, evidence be damned.
Not long after Blackwater appeared, the American justice system provided a coda to Scahill’s years-long campaign of hyperbole, innuendo, and fact-free defamation against the company. In 2009, a federal judge threw out the indictment of five Blackwater guards involved in the Nisour Square incident. In 2011, a district judge dismissed Blackwater’s founder, Prince, from a civil lawsuit alleging that he had defrauded the U.S. government. And in February, a three-year federal prosecution of five separate ex-Blackwater officials for a variety of offenses, including weapons violations and making false statements, resulted in charges against three of the men being dismissed and the remaining two pleading guilty to barely related misdemeanors with no jail time.
With the scalp of Blackwater in hand, Scahill moved on to a bigger, juicier target: the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policies. The fruit of this effort is Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. It mounts what is essentially a 700-page rationalization of Islamist terrorism twinned with a fiery condemnation of American foreign policy right down to its title, a deliberate invocation of the Argentinian military junta’s campaign of repression, torture, and murder against political dissidents in the 1970s.
On 9/11, Scahill argues, the Bush administration grasped its chance to upturn the traditional rules of conflict by converting the entire globe into a theater of combat and anyone it didn’t like into an enemy combatant. “The world is a battlefield and we are at war,” Scahill writes. “Therefore the military can go wherever they please and do whatever it is that they want to do, in order to achieve the national-security objectives of whichever administration happens to be in power.”
Scahill is less wild in tone here than in Blackwater, yet he still manages to slip into hyperbole. For instance, writing about Abu Ghraib, he concedes that the facility was a “prison and torture chamber” under the rule of Saddam Hussein but that America made it worse and turned it into a “gulag.” (Scahill has also written that “the U.S. still runs that gulag in Guantanamo, which one could argue represents the area in Cuba where the most heinous human rights abuses have been perpetrated in recent years.”)
He also continues his theme that the United States is involved in a war against Islam, echoing the propaganda of al-Qaeda. Whereas earlier this “crusade” was attributable mainly to the “Christian Supremacist” Knights of Blackwater, now, in Scahill’s telling, it reaches up to the highest ranks of the American military. Despite the concerted efforts of General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, to reduce civilian casualties, Scahill alleges that McChrystal “shared the political view that the United States was indeed in a war against Islam.” His source for this grave allegation is “a retired military officer” who tells Scahill that McChrystal was one of several U.S. military figures constituting a group of “fellow travelers in the great crusade against Islam.” (Another source Scahill cites as an expert on American foreign policy is Gareth Porter, a notorious defender of the Khmer Rouge who alleged that the Cambodian genocide was “a myth fostered primarily by the authors of a Readers’ Digest book.”)
Reading Dirty Wars and listening to Scahill speak reveals that he is essentially opposed to the use of force by the United States or its allies. “I found it quite disgusting to see people chanting, like it was some sort of sporting event, outside of the White House,” he said on “Democracy Now!” following the death of Osama bin Laden. “This is a somber day where we should be remembering all of the victims, the 3,000 people that died in the United States and then the hundreds of thousands that died afterwards as a result of a U.S. response to this that should have been a law enforcement response and instead was to declare war on the world,” he said, thus connecting those murdered on 9/11 with those civilians who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Indeed, Scahill seems to have a problem with even the most benign expressions of American patriotism. “I hate when people chant U-S-A. #FalseNationalistCrap,” he opined on Twitter during the 2010 World Cup.)
For all his anger about American declarations of “war on the world,” Scahill never seems to generate any ire over violence perpetrated by non-Westerners. In a section of the book about terrorism in the horn of Africa, he outright defends the rampant piracy that has resulted in several deadly hostage situations on the high seas. To Scahill, it was not the pirates who were villains, but private business. “International corporations and nation-states had taken advantage of the permanent state of instability in Somalia, treating the Somali coast as their private, for-profit fishery, while others polluted it with illegal waste dumping,” he writes in Dirty Wars. In light of this rapacious, capitalist nightmare, “piracy was at times a response to these actions and some pirates viewed themselves as a sort of Somali coast guard.” (If only Scahill were so charitable to Dick Cheney.) He describes the Islamic Courts Union, Somalia’s short-lived version of the Taliban, as a motley coalition of “liberals, moderates, and extremists” united by a desire to “stabiliz[e] the country through Sharia law.” In the brief period that the group ruled much of Somalia, it shut down movie theater and co-ed events and declared jihad on neighboring Ethiopia.
To personalize the cost of America’s “dirty wars,” Scahill chose a curious subject: Anwar al-Awlaki. The firebrand Islamic preacher, who was born in New Mexico, gained notoriety as the first American citizen since the Civil War to be declared a wartime enemy and deliberately killed without trial by the United States government (via drone attack). Over the course of just a few years, Awlaki inspired a dozen terrorist plots. Some (such as the 2009 Christmas Day “underwear bomber”) failed, while others (such as the killing of 13 soldiers at Fort Hood by Nidal Malik Hasan) were monstrously successful. Through the saga of Awlaki and his targeted killing in Yemen, Scahill hopes, we can appreciate not only the wantonness of America’s “dirty wars” abroad, but the “blowback” effect they produce at home.
From the outset, Scahill seeks to humanize the man who declared jihad against his homeland. “In many ways, Awlaki’s story was a classic tale of people from a faraway land seeking a better life in America,” he writes at the outset of Dirty Wars. Awlaki, we learn, was merely a pious Muslim driven to justifiable rage by America’s wicked foreign policy and its post-9/11 backlash against domestic Muslim communities. To be sure, it was not just Scahill who believed that Awlaki was a moderate Muslim who later transformed into something else. In the late 1990s, he had emerged as one of the most prominent imams in the United States, leading a prayer service for congressional staffers and speaking at the Pentagon. But, according to Scahill, “between the global crackdown that followed 9/11 and the U.S. government’s campaign to hunt him down, something in Awlaki shifted, and he was no longer torn between allegiance to the country of his birth and his religion.”
Yet the alleged “shift,” if it can even be labeled as such, is not so easy to decipher. The good reputation Awlaki had earned among credulous non-Muslims was more a testament to their inability to recognize duplicity than it was of his genuine moderation. According to an in-depth New York Times profile, in which two dozen of his former friends and associates were interviewed, Awlaki was awakened to jihad upon visiting Afghanistan at around the time the Soviet-backed government there fell to Islamist forces; in other words, at least a decade before 9/11. Upon returning to the United States, he would “quote Abdullah Azzam, a prominent Palestinian scholar who provided theological justification for the Afghan jihad and was later known as a mentor to Osama bin Laden,” the Times reported. Several years later, ensconced at the Denver Islamic Society, he encouraged a Saudi student to travel to Chechnya and join the jihad against Russia.
Prior to the 9/11 attacks, Awlaki ministered to three of the hijackers, developing a “close relationship” with two of them, according to the 9/11 Commission Report. And although the FBI ultimately decided not to pursue a full-scale investigation of Awlaki after the attacks, the decision was controversial within the agency, with one detective telling the 9/11 Commission that he believed Awlaki “was at the center of the 9/11 story.” Days after the attacks, Awlaki publicly disputed Muslim involvement, writing that the FBI merely blamed passengers with Muslim names. In a sermon the following week, Awlaki read a condolence note from Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has endorsed the practice of female genital mutilation and capital punishment for homosexuals, has referred to suicide bombings as “heroic martyrdom operations,” and has called for Islam to “conquer” America and Europe. Scahill, who never lacks for colorful adjectives when describing people like Erik Prince (“Christian Supremacist”) or Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld (“key leaders of a militant movement”), referred to Qaradawi merely as “the famous, controversial Egyptian theologian.”
But even as the mainstream media was continuing to court him as a “moderate” Islamic voice, Awlaki was showing clear signs of further radicalization. A week after 9/11, he said that the attacks were not “an attack on American freedom, on the American way of life,” but “an attack on U.S. foreign policy.” In words that can be read, at best, as a morally equivocating call for pacifism as a response to 9/11, Awlaki declared: “The fact that the U.S. has administered the death and homicide of over one million civilians in Iraq, the fact that the U.S. is supporting the deaths and killing of thousands of Palestinians doesn’t justify the killing of one U.S. civilian in New York City or Washington D.C. And the deaths of 6,000 civilians in New York and Washington D.C., does not justify the death of one civilian in Afghanistan.” (After his killing, Scahill told NPR’s Terry Gross that Awlaki “actually was saying things that many secular anti-war activists were saying about the sameness of violence.”)
According to Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, “a close analysis of the corpus of Awlaki’s sermons and articles shows a surprising level of consistency throughout,” and “the only significant change has been in the prescriptions for solving the perceived problems faced by the ummah (global Muslim community).” That is, Awlaki was always a radical, but would only explicitly embrace violence against Westerners after 9/11, when he was living in Yemen.
In the wake of 9/11, Awlaki fueled claims that Muslims across America were falling victim to a violent nationwide “backlash,” a slanderous picture of the remarkably restrained American response that Scahill accepts at face value. Soon, Awlaki was spouting the sort of anti-corporate hyperbole popularized by Canadian author (and Scahill’s Nation colleague) Naomi Klein. “Either accept McDonald’s, otherwise McDonnell Douglas will send their F-15s above your head,” Awlaki said in a 2003 London sermon. In one particularly popular Internet diatribe, Awlaki implored his listeners, “Whenever you see the word terrorist, replace it with the word mujahid. Whenever you see the word terrorism, replace it with the word jihad.” In 2005, six months after listening to this sermon on a laptop computer, a group of 18 Muslim men were arrested in Canada’s largest post-9/11 terrorism investigation after attempting to blow up downtown Toronto and various military installations.
According to Scahill, Awlaki never said or did anything that ought to have alarmed the U.S. government, and whatever might have alarmed them was their own fault. “You could make a reasonable case that Anwar Awlaki was a product of U.S. policy,” he told the Kremlin-funded propaganda cable station RT. Citing a 2008 Awlaki blog post, in which the cleric furiously issues a “challenge” for the U.S. to “come up with one such lecture where I encourage ‘terrorist attacks,’” Scahill opines, “But, in the eyes of the U.S. government, Awlaki’s calls for jihad amounted to encouraging such attacks,” as if “calls for jihad” amount to anything but “encouraging” violence.
If Awlaki’s sermons were not yet explicit enough to warrant the accusation that he was “encouraging” terrorism, he would soon discard any subtlety with the release in 2010 of Inspire, al-Qaeda’s English-language magazine, which he co-founded and co-edited. Its premier issue included a “hit list” of artists who had caricatured the prophet Muhammad and an accompanying piece by Awlaki urging Muslims to assassinate them. Scahill brushes the magazine aside, saying that it “played into the U.S. propaganda campaign aimed at presenting AQAP as a grave threat.” His nonchalance about the effect of such propaganda tools on young, disillusioned Muslim minds could not have been more unfortunately timed; the May issue of Inspire devoted nearly all its 40 pages to the “BBB,” or “Blessed Boston bombings,” carried out by two young men who were “inspired by INSPIRE,” as the magazine bragged. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who along with his brother Tamerlan killed three people with a bomb attack at this year’s Boston Marathon, has told investigators that he and his sibling discovered how to build their pressure-cooker bombs from the magazine and were motivated to launch their deadly attack after listening to Awlaki’s sermons.
To be sure, hateful sermons—even those that encourage violence—are not the same thing as violence itself. “There was no hard evidence presented that Awlaki had done anything that was not protected speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, or that would not require a major court battle to prove it was unconstitutional,” Scahill writes, employing a strange defense for a man who openly rejected the American Constitution and justice system. Elsewhere in his defense of Awlaki, Scahill claims that “words are not actions.”
Definitive proof of Awlaki’s “operational,” as opposed to simply “inspirational,” role in terrorism came in two court filings released in February. In 2009, a Nigerian graduate student named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to detonate explosive materials sewn into his undergarments while on an Amsterdam jet bound for Detroit. Abdulmutallab, who eventually plead guilty, told investigators that after absorbing Awlaki’s sermons for years, he traveled to Yemen in 2009 to find the preacher and spent three days at Awlaki’s home discussing jihad. Awlaki then sent the young Nigerian to an al-Qaeda bomb-maker, gave his blessing to an attack, and specifically told his disciple to detonate the bomb over U.S. soil, thus ensuring the highest number of possible casualties (unlike a failed 2006 attempt in which the plotters had planned to explode American-bound planes leaving from Britain over the Atlantic Ocean). Directed by Awlaki, Abdulmutallab trained for two weeks at an al-Qaeda camp in Yemen.
And what is Scahill’s analysis of this damning indictment from the attempted underwear bomber himself? He does not even mention it. Granted, this confession did not emerge publicly until 2012, months after Awlaki had been killed. But it appeared over a year before Scahill’s book was released. Instead, Scahill denies the Obama administration’s earlier, fuzzier claims of Awlaki’s involvement in the Christmas Day plot by quoting unnamed “tribal sources” in Yemen who told him that “Awlaki was not involved in the plot.” And Scahill accepts, at face value, Awlaki’s own denial of issuing any “fatwa,” though the cleric stated, after the attempt failed, “I support what Umar Farouk has done.”
Scahill’s main source for his narrative on Awlaki is the late cleric’s father, Nasser, an American-educated agricultural expert. In the acknowledgements to Dirty Wars, Scahill writes of how he stands “in awe” of the Awlaki family’s “quest for justice.” Scahill publishes a 2010 letter the elder Awlaki wrote to Obama, in which he characterized his son’s post-9/11 radicalization as “learning and preaching his religion and nothing else.” The senior Awlaki then pleaded with the president. “I would like to inform you Mr. President Obama that my son is innocent, has nothing to do with violence, and he is only a scholar of Islam.” That Scahill, the supposedly dogged investigative journalist, would convey this fable about Awlaki verbatim without any critical reflection whatsoever reveals where his sympathies lay.
Scahill’s criticism of the blowback allegedly caused by drones would be more credible if he expressed support for some other method of combatting America’s enemies. But unlike some critics, who argue against drones because they believe them to be inefficient and instead favor other methods, Scahill’s opposition is foundational. In his eyes, the U.S. lacks all legitimacy for using force, because the death of one civilian is too much. “Those whose loved ones were killed in drone strikes or cruise missile attacks or night raids will have a legitimate score to settle,” he writes, essentially arguing that relatives of civilians who die unintentionally as a result of U.S. counterterrorism actions ought to wage terrorist attacks in turn.
One of Scahill’s prime targets in Dirty Wars is the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, the military’s most elite fighting force responsible for, among other accomplishments, the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Initially a hostage rescue team formed in the wake of the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran, JSOC transformed over the past three decades into a top-secret counterterrorism force heavily favored by President Obama, who has been averse to large-scale military deployments. JSOC often operates in areas where the United States has not declared war (such as Pakistan or Yemen) and has become a vital element in the American war on terror. Whereas most Americans probably view JSOC with admiration, Scahill sees something nefarious. It is a “global killing machine,” Obama’s embrace of which indicates that he has “doubled down on the Bush-era policy of targeted assassination as a staple of U.S. foreign policy.” As with drone strikes, Scahill’s criticism of JSOC rests on its very existence; he proposes no alternative to dealing with armed radicals who seek to sow destruction against the United States and its allies.
Scahill was bidding to be the most important voice on the far left until Greenwald zoomed past him this summer with the Snowden leaks. Like Scahill, Greenwald ascended rapidly from the precincts of the far left to mainstream acceptance. In the past six years, he has written four books, three of which have been New York Times bestsellers. And also like Scahill, he brings a pugnacious personality and Manichaean worldview to his work. Greenwald grew up near Fort Lauderdale, and his homosexuality appears to have played some role in fomenting his anti-American attitudes. “When you grow up gay, you are not part of the system, it forces you to evaluate: ‘Is it me, or is the system bad?’” he told the New York Times earlier this year. It is understandable how Greenwald, who, until the Supreme Court decided the case of Windsor v. United States earlier this year, would have been unable to bring Miranda to live with him in his native land, might have resented his country for it. Yet America has the capacity to change, as it has in quite a remarkably short period of time on the issue of homosexuality. Moreover, however disagreeable Greenwald might have found his country’s attitudes toward his sexual orientation, it can hardly justify his advocacy on behalf of some of the world’s most repulsive homophobes.
Briefly a litigator for the high-powered firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz before hanging out his own shingle, Greenwald stopped practicing law to take up political writing in 2005. Greenwald claims to have been radicalized by the Bush administration, which he believed had plunged the country into an unprecedented moral darkness. “Over the past five years, a creeping extremism has taken hold of our federal government, and it is threatening to radically alter our system of government and who we are as a nation,” he wrote in the preface to his 2006 book, How Would a Patriot Act?
While Greenwald repudiates any political classification other than that of a committed civil libertarian, he has repeatedly spoken at international socialist conferences, including one this year where he joined Scahill for an “urgent discussion about the attack on civil liberties, U.S. imperialism, and how we can fight back,” in the words of the organizers. “As someone who speaks at all sorts of political gatherings every year, I can say with certainty that no event assembles more passionate activism, genuine expertise, and provocative insights than the Socialism Conference,” Greenwald has said. “This will be my third straight year attending, and what keeps me coming back is how invigorating and inspiring it is to be in the midst of such diverse and impressive activists.”
In 2005, Greenwald started a blog, Unclaimed Territory, which was originally focused on the Valerie Plame case. He soon branched out into covering a variety of topics related to civil liberties and foreign policy, in a manner highly critical of the Bush administration and its defenders in the media, to put it gently. His vituperative writing style (“odious,” to designate someone or something he doesn’t agree with, and “smear,” to describe any criticism, no matter how mild, of something he does agree with, being two of his choice words) mixed with the detailed obsessiveness of a trained litigator, proved popular with a steadily growing number of readers in the left-wing blogosphere. He quickly rose to become one of the country’s most widely read bloggers, repeatedly earning himself a place on lists of the most influential or popular pundits in the United States. In 2007, his blog was picked up by the website Salon, and in 2012, Greenwald catapulted into international stardom when he was hired by the Guardian as a full-time blogger and reporter.
Like Scahill, Greenwald subscribes to a modernized version of the old trope attributing all that is wrong in the world to the behavior of the United States. They maintain that anything unfortunate to befall America is a result of its own behavior, or, in the parlance of left- and right-wing isolationists, blowback. Greenwald never comes out explicitly in favor of terrorist attacks. His defenses of jihad are always couched in language that seeks to justify terrorism as a logical and understandable response to Western imperialism. “As strange as it is, they actually seem to dislike it when foreign militaries bomb, invade, and occupy their countries and kill hundreds of thousands of Muslim children,” Greenwald sarcastically wrote of Muslim terrorism suspects in 2010.
“Terrorism,” Greenwald has written, is “a term of propaganda, a means of justifying one’s own state violence.” Greenwald acknowledges no distinction between the strict rules of engagement followed by Western militaries and the deliberate murder of civilians perpetrated by Islamists. “Anti-American Terrorists,” he writes (sarcastic capitalization being a Greenwaldian trademark meant to impugn his intellectual adversaries as fearmongering, self-important cretins), are motivated by “severe anger over the violence and interference the U.S. brings to their part of the world.” Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American who was arrested in 2010 for attempting to set off a car bomb in Times Square, had told investigators he wanted to take revenge on America in response to the drone strikes it had launched in his native country’s ungoverned tribal areas. While we in America might view the blowing up of a car bomb in Times Square to be an utterly inappropriate response to such a policy, Greenwald reminded his readers that “a desire to exact vengeance for foreign killings on your soil is hardly a unique attribute of Pashtun culture.” On the contrary, “It’s fairly universal,” Greenwald wrote. “See, for instance, the furious American response to the one-day attack on 9/11—still going strong even after 9 years.” And so the American response to the murder of nearly 3,000 of its citizens (a mere “one-day attack”) is akin to blowing up a Nissan Pathfinder in the country’s busiest commercial plaza.
In addition to justifying the horrific violence regularly perpetrated by Islamists (most often against their fellow Muslims) as perfectly understandable reactions to American behavior, Greenwald portrays attempted terrorists as luckless victims of entrapment by the American government. The series of terrorist attacks thwarted in the United States in the dozen years since 9/11, Greenwald argues, were largely orchestrated by law-enforcement authorities to scare the American people and thereby mentally bludgeon them into supporting tougher and tougher counterterrorism measures and invasions into their privacy. In November 2010, officers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Portland police arrested 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a Somali-American student, on charges of attempting to detonate a car bomb at a Christmas tree lighting, an attack that would have killed scores of people. Undercover agents approached Mohamud, pretending to be members of an international terrorist organization, and provided him with the fake bomb. “The FBI successfully thwarts its own terrorist plot,” sneered Greenwald on his blog.
Entrapment, of which Greenwald accused the government, hinges on intent. And in each and every one of the post-9/11 terrorism cases, the accused individual demonstrated a clear willingness and desire to kill innocent people; in not one of these cases has a court found a defendant not guilty by reason of entrapment. Throughout the Portland investigation, for instance, according to the government’s affidavit, undercover agents repeatedly told Mohamud that the attack would lead to the death and injury of many people and offered him opportunities to back out of the plan. At every point, Mohamud acknowledged his willingness to kill people and resisted attempts to dissuade his participation. While defending Mohamud as a hapless kid targeted by unscrupulous government officials, Greenwald made time to once again play lawyer for the terrorist’s defense. Citing a video Mohamud made before the attempted attack in which he announced, “Did you think that you could invade a Muslim land, and we would not invade you,” Greenwald wrote that “accused Terrorists” repeatedly explain that “they are attempting to carry out plots in retaliation for past and ongoing American violence against Muslim civilians and deter such future acts” (emphasis in original).
Though Greenwald had already gained a loyal following in the United States, his joining the Guardian—the closest thing to a Bible for the global left—elevated him to new heights. And it was less than a year into working for the London-based paper that he would break what would become the biggest story of 2013: revelations about the extent of spying programs conducted by the National Security Agency. In his original story about the Prism program, Greenwald alleged that the NSA is able “to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders” and that it can “directly and unilaterally seize the communications off the companies’ servers.” In reality, however, the NSA does not have anything approaching such wide and uninhibited access to the data compiled by Internet companies. Rather, as the Guardian later acknowledged, the agency obtains the information it needs via “drop boxes”—secure computer servers—established by the companies themselves. There, companies can safely deposit legally requested information. The drop boxes are simply a method of complying with subpoenas, which, like any American citizen or business concern, Internet companies are legally obliged to do. This reality is a far cry from the government having access to any and every bit of data compiled by Internet companies.
In his coverage of the NSA programs, Greenwald’s status as an unapologetic polemicist has collided with what ought to have been the news judgment of the Guardian. In his writing and frequent television appearances, he has vastly exaggerated, and at times outright lied about, the programs. For instance, in describing the Prism program on CNN, Greenwald detailed an Orwellian world in which the American government has “only one goal, and that is to destroy privacy and anonymity, not just in the United States but around the world. That is not hyperbole. That is their objective.” On MSNBC, he said that “the objective of this is to enable the NSA to monitor every single conversation and every single form of human behavior.” According to Greenwald, the problem with the NSA’s programs is not that they represent an overzealous approach to combating terrorism, for in his view the NSA actually has no interest in combating terrorism. No, the “only one goal” of the NSA is to spy on innocent American citizens. Here Greenwald did what he always does, which is to impute sinister motives to actors—in this case, the shadowy and amorphous American national-security state—he cannot substantiate with evidence. In publishing wildly sensational stories about the NSA, Greenwald is himself guilty of the very type of fearmongering that he accuses the government of perpetrating against American citizens. And it appears to be working. A July poll conducted by Pew found that 63 percent of Americans believe the government is “gathering information about the content of communications,” and a full 27 percent of Americans believe that the government has “listened to or read their phone calls and emails.”
While actively supporting (in words and materially) the work of American traitors, Greenwald simultaneously accuses American friends of Israel of putting the interests of the Jewish state before their own. “Not even our Constitution’s First Amendment has been a match for the endless exploitation of American policy, law, and resources [by the Israel lobby] to target and punish Israel’s enemies,” he wrote in 2009. Pro-Israel activists and writers, he alleged, exercise a “suffocating control over American debates and American policy.” If one does not “pledge your loyalty to our policies toward Israel and to Israel,” he once wrote, you will “be demonized and have your career ended,” an odd remark coming from a man whose career has gone from strength to strength the more outrageous his attacks on Israel have become.
Greenwald is not just content to slander Israel’s American supporters; he is a full-throated supporter of those who seek its destruction. Following the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident—in which Israeli commandos raided a Turkish flotilla, attempting to break Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip—Greenwald published a series of strongly worded posts condemning the Jewish State and praising those who took part in the flotilla. “It hardly seemed possible, for Israel—after its brutal devastation of Gaza and its ongoing blockade—to engage in more heinous and repugnant crimes,” he wrote, with characteristically overwrought language. Greenwald, who trades on his history as a corporate litigator to pose as an expert in international law, asserted that the Israeli blockade of Hamas is “illegal,” despite a ruling by the United Nations to the contrary. He alleged, moreover, that “the initial act of aggression was the Israeli seizing of a ship in international waters which was doing nothing hostile,” choosing here to ignore the stated, pro-Hamas sympathies of those behind the flotilla. Nor did Greenwald ever bother to retract his assertions after a United Nations inspection into the incident found that the Israeli commandos who boarded the main Turkish ship were met with “organized and violent resistance from a group of passengers.”
The most telling aspect of Greenwald’s writings about the flotilla incident, which applies to his oeuvre on Israel more generally, is that he hardly ever mentions Hamas, never mind its racism or genocidal intentions. Grappling with the nature of Hamas would complicate Greenwald’s black-and-white portrayal of the Middle East, so he ignores it completely. And then he went a step further. Noting that the Mavi Marmara incident occurred on Memorial Day, “when the meaning of ‘heroism’ is often discussed,” Greenwald wanted his readers to know that the members of the Mavi Marmara were “pure, unadulterated heroes.”
Greenwald’s temperament is never reasonable, and his writing style borders on the outlandish in its vituperation and tendency to characterize anyone who disagrees with him, even on the slightest point, as evil. He can sometimes veer off into unintentional self-parody, like the time he wrote an entire post endorsing the repeal of “Godwin’s Law,” the assertion made by journalist Mike Godwin that, “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” Devised in 1990, “Godwin’s Law,” seems to have been presciently created just for Greenwald. In 2010, after ridiculing the notion that there had been any positive outcome from the invasion of Iraq, Greenwald received a public invitation from the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan to visit the region. Greenwald scoffed at the offer, writing, “It’s difficult to find an invasion in history that wasn’t supported by at least some faction of the invaded population and where that same self-justifying script wasn’t used.” He then went on to compare the war in Iraq to the Nazi “invasion” of Austria and the Sudetenland, with the Kurds, in this sickening comparison, akin to Nazi sympathizers.
In his capacity as a legally minded pontificator of the far left, Greenwald might be called the Leonard Boudin of the interactive age. Boudin was the go-to lawyer for America’s most prominent Communists, left-wing radicals, and terrorists, not to mention the post-revolutionary Cuban government of Fidel Castro. Like Boudin, Greenwald can always be relied upon to provide a defense for those who wish to do America and its allies harm. Greenwald has ranked his perverse sense of “anti-imperialism” ahead of any and all other considerations, including what many would expect to be his own self-interest. After all, how else could a gay Jew become the world’s most verbose Western apologist for homophobic, anti-Semitic fanatics and murderers?
In their critiques of the Obama administration, Greenwald and Scahill are right about one important thing, which is the general continuity in counterterrorism policies between the Bush and Obama administrations and the blatant hypocrisy of the latter in claiming it would restore the reputation of an America “tarnished” by the actions of the former. Unlike many on the left, who vigorously defend Obama policies they would surely condemn as war crimes if a Republican were pursuing them, Greenwald and Scahill are at least intellectually consistent in their broad renunciation of American foreign policy. The Obama administration had propagated “the fantasy of a clean war,” Scahill writes, the implication being that all wars are inherently “dirty,” and thus America should disarm and withdraw from the world.
While this righteous condemnation of American liberal hypocrisy is a welcome tonic, one must remember that it originates from a deep and abiding belief that America plays a fundamentally evil role in the world. It is a view that Greenwald and Scahill have repeatedly expressed. “So I say that we call for an end to the death penalty in this country, and we call for an end to the collective death penalty being meted out on the rest of the world by this criminal government,” Scahill pronounced at the Socialism 2007 conference. Raising a similar alarm about the foundational corruption of the American political system, Greenwald declares that “the worst and most tyrannical government actions in Washington are equally supported on a fully bipartisan basis.”
“All men should have a drop of treason in their veins,” Rebecca West wrote in 1964. By this she meant that no citizen should accept everything his political leaders say without question; he should be ready to acknowledge that his government, like anything created by man, is capable of error. This sentiment has been popularized in the less eloquent and more simplistic maxim “dissent is patriotic.” The American practitioners of Treason Chic like to see themselves as dissenters, which they are in the sense that they diverge from the mainstream. But in so doing, they have taken the principle to an unholy extreme. Striking a pose as concerned patriots, far more than a drop of treason courses through their veins.
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Can it be reversed?
Writing in these pages last year (“Illiberalism: The Worldwide Crisis,” July/August 2016), I described this surge of intemperate politics as a global phenomenon, a crisis of illiberalism stretching from France to the Philippines and from South Africa to Greece. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, I argued, were articulating American versions of this growing challenge to liberalism. By “liberalism,” I was referring not to the left or center-left but to the philosophy of individual rights, free enterprise, checks and balances, and cultural pluralism that forms the common ground of politics across the West.
Less a systematic ideology than a posture or sensibility, the new illiberalism nevertheless has certain core planks. Chief among these are a conspiratorial account of world events; hostility to free trade and finance capital; opposition to immigration that goes beyond reasonable restrictions and bleeds into virulent nativism; impatience with norms and procedural niceties; a tendency toward populist leader-worship; and skepticism toward international treaties and institutions, such as NATO, that provide the scaffolding for the U.S.-led postwar order.
The new illiberals, I pointed out, all tend to admire established authoritarians to varying degrees. Trump, along with France’s Marine Le Pen and many others, looks to Vladimir Putin. For Sanders, it was Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, where, the Vermont socialist said in 2011, “the American dream is more apt to be realized.” Even so, I argued, the crisis of illiberalism traces mainly to discontents internal to liberal democracies.
Trump’s election and his first eight months in office have confirmed the thrust of my predictions, if not all of the policy details. On the policy front, the new president has proved too undisciplined, his efforts too wild and haphazard, to reorient the U.S. government away from postwar liberal order.
The courts blunted the “Muslim ban.” The Trump administration has reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to defend treaty partners in Europe and East Asia. Trumpian grumbling about allies not paying their fair share—a fair point in Europe’s case, by the way—has amounted to just that. The president did pull the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but even the ultra-establishmentarian Hillary Clinton went from supporting to opposing the pact once she figured out which way the Democratic winds were blowing. The North American Free Trade Agreement, which came into being nearly a quarter-century ago, does look shaky at the moment, but there is no reason to think that it won’t survive in some modified form.
Yet on the cultural front, the crisis of illiberalism continues to rage. If anything, it has intensified, as attested by the events surrounding the protest over a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. The president refused to condemn unequivocally white nationalists who marched with swastikas and chanted “Jews will not replace us.” Trump even suggested there were “very fine people” among them, thus winking at the so-called alt-right as he had during the campaign. In the days that followed, much of the left rallied behind so-called antifa (“anti-fascist”) militants who make no secret of their allegiance to violent totalitarian ideologies at the other end of the political spectrum.
Disorder is the new American normal, then. Questions that appeared to have been settled—about the connection between economic and political liberty, the perils of conspiracism and romantic politics, America’s unique role on the world stage, and so on—are unsettled once more. Serious people wonder out loud whether liberal democracy is worth maintaining at all, with many of them concluding that it is not. The return of ideas that for good reason were buried in the last century threatens the decent political order that has made the U.S. an exceptionally free and prosperous civilization.F or many leftists, America’s commitment to liberty and equality before the law has always masked despotism and exploitation. This view long predated Trump’s rise, and if they didn’t subscribe to it themselves, too often mainstream Democrats and progressives treated its proponents—the likes of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn—as beloved and respectable, if slightly eccentric, relatives.
This cynical vision of the free society (as a conspiracy against the dispossessed) was a mainstay of Cold War–era debates about the relative merits of Western democracy and Communism. Soviet apologists insisted that Communist states couldn’t be expected to uphold “merely” formal rights when they had set out to shape a whole new kind of man. That required “breaking a few eggs,” in the words of the Stalinist interrogators in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Anyway, what good were free speech and due process to the coal miner, when under capitalism the whole social structure was rigged against him?
That line worked for a time, until the scale of Soviet tyranny became impossible to justify by anyone but its most abject apologists. It became obvious that “bourgeois justice,” however imperfect, was infinitely preferable to the Marxist alternative. With the Communist experiment discredited, and Western workers uninterested in staging world revolution, the illiberal left began shifting instead to questions of identity. In race-gender-sexuality theory and the identitarian “subaltern,” it found potent substitutes for dialectical materialism and the proletariat. We are still living with the consequences of this shift.
Although there were superficial resemblances, this new politics of identity differed from earlier civil-rights movements. Those earlier movements had sought a place at the American table for hitherto entirely or somewhat excluded groups: blacks, women, gays, the disabled, and so on. In doing so, they didn’t seek to overturn or radically reorganize the table. Instead, they reaffirmed the American Founding (think of Martin Luther King Jr.’s constant references to the Declaration of Independence). And these movements succeeded, owing to America’s tremendous capacity for absorbing social change.
Yet for the new identitarians, as for the Marxists before them, liberal-democratic order was systematically rigged against the downtrodden—now redefined along lines of race, gender, and sexuality, with social class quietly swept under the rug. America’s strides toward racial progress, not least the election and re-election of an African-American president, were dismissed. The U.S. still deserved condemnation because it fell short of perfect inclusion, limitless autonomy, and complete equality—conditions that no free society can achieve given the root fact of human nature. The accidentals had changed from the Marxist days, in other words, but the essentials remained the same.
In one sense, though, the identitarians went further. The old Marxists still claimed to stand on objectively accessible truth. Not so their successors. Following intellectual lodestars such as the gender theorist Judith Butler, the identity left came to reject objective truth—and with it, biological sex differences, aesthetic standards in art, the possibility of universal moral precepts, and much else of the kind. All of these things, the left identitarians said, were products of repressive institutions, hierarchies, and power.
Today’s “social-justice warriors” are heirs to this sordid intellectual legacy. They claim to seek justice. But, unmoored from any moral foundations, SJW justice operates like mob justice and revolutionary terror, usually carried out online. SJWs claim to protect individual autonomy, but the obsession with group identity and power dynamics means that SJW autonomy claims must destroy the autonomy of others. Self-righteousness married to total relativism is a terrifying thing.
It isn’t enough to have legalized same-sex marriage in the U.S. via judicial fiat; the evangelical baker must be forced to bake cakes for gay weddings. It isn’t enough to have won legal protection and social acceptance for the transgendered; the Orthodox rabbi must use preferred trans pronouns on pain of criminal prosecution. Likewise, since there is no objective truth to be gained from the open exchange of ideas, any speech that causes subjective discomfort among members of marginalized groups must be suppressed, if necessary through physical violence. Campus censorship that began with speech codes and mobs that prevented conservative and pro-Israel figures from speaking has now evolved into a general right to beat anyone designated as a “fascist,” on- or off-campus.
For the illiberal left, the election of Donald Trump was indisputable proof that behind America’s liberal pieties lurks, forever, the beast of bigotry. Trump, in this view, wasn’t just an unqualified vulgarian who nevertheless won the decisive backing of voters dissatisfied with the alternative or alienated from mainstream politics. Rather, a vote for Trump constituted a declaration of war against women, immigrants, and other victims of American “structures of oppression.” There would be no attempt to persuade Trump supporters; war would be answered by war.
This isn’t liberalism. Since it can sometimes appear as an extension of traditional civil-rights activism, however, identity leftism has glommed itself onto liberalism. It is frequently impossible to tell where traditional autonomy- and equality-seeking liberalism ends and repressive identity leftism begins. Whether based on faulty thinking or out of a sense of weakness before an angry and energetic movement, liberals have too often embraced the identity left as their own. They haven’t noticed how the identitarians seek to undermine, not rectify, liberal order.
Some on the left, notably Columbia University’s Mark Lilla, are sounding the alarm and calling on Democrats to stress the common good over tribalism. Yet these are a few voices in the wilderness. Identitarians of various stripes still lord over the broad left, where it is fashionable to believe that the U.S. project is predatory and oppressive by design. If there is a viable left alternative to identity on the horizon, it is the one offered by Sanders and his “Bernie Bros”—which is to say, a reversion to the socialism and class struggle of the previous century.
Americans, it seems, will have to wait a while for reason and responsibility to return to the left.T
hen there is the illiberal fever gripping American conservatives. Liberal democracy has always had its critics on the right, particularly in Continental Europe, where statist, authoritarian, and blood-and-soil accounts of conservatism predominate. Mainstream Anglo-American conservatism took a different course. It has championed individual rights, free enterprise, and pluralism while insisting that liberty depends on public virtue and moral order, and that sometimes the claims of liberty and autonomy must give way to those of tradition, state authority, and the common good.
The whole beauty of American order lies in keeping in tension these rival forces that are nevertheless fundamentally at peace. The Founders didn’t adopt wholesale Enlightenment liberalism; rather, they tempered its precepts about universal rights with the teachings of biblical religion as well as Roman political theory. The Constitution drew from all three wellsprings. The product was a whole, and it is a pointless and ahistorical exercise to elevate any one source above the others.
American conservatism and liberalism, then, are in fact branches of each other, the one (conservatism) invoking tradition and virtue to defend and, when necessary, discipline the regime of liberty; the other (liberalism) guaranteeing the open space in which churches, volunteer organizations, philanthropic activity, and other sources of tradition and civic virtue flourish, in freedom, rather than through state establishment or patronage.
One result has been long-term political stability, a blessing that Americans take for granted. Another has been the transformation of liberalism into the lingua franca of all politics, not just at home but across a world that, since 1945, has increasingly reflected U.S. preferences. The great French classical liberal Raymond Aron noted in 1955 that the “essentials of liberalism—the respect for individual liberty and moderate government—are no longer the property of a single party: they have become the property of all.” As Aron archly pointed out, even liberalism’s enemies tend to frame their objections using the rights-based talk associated with liberalism.
Under Trump, however, some in the party of the right have abdicated their responsibility to liberal democracy as a whole. They have reduced themselves to the lowest sophistry in defense of the New Yorker’s inanities and daily assaults on presidential norms. Beginning when Trump clinched the GOP nomination last year, a great deal of conservative “thinking” has amounted to: You did X to us, now enjoy it as we dish it back to you and then some. Entire websites and some of the biggest stars in right-wing punditry are singularly devoted to making this rather base point. If Trump is undermining this or that aspect of liberal order that was once cherished by conservatives, so be it; that 63 million Americans supported him and that the president “drives the left crazy”—these are good enough reasons to go along.
Some of this is partisan jousting that occurs with every administration. But when it comes to Trump’s most egregious statements and conduct—such as his repeated assertions that the U.S. and Putin’s thugocracy are moral equals—the apologetics are positively obscene. Enough pooh-poohing, whataboutery, and misdirection of this kind, and there will be no conservative principle left standing.
More perniciously, as once-defeated illiberal philosophies have returned with a vengeance to the left, so have their reactionary analogues to the right. The two illiberalisms enjoy a remarkable complementarity and even cross-pollinate each other. This has developed to the point where it is sometimes hard to distinguish Tucker Carlson from Chomsky, Laura Ingraham from Julian Assange, the Claremont Review from New Left Review, and so on.
Two slanders against liberalism in particular seem to be gathering strength on the thinking right. The first is the tendency to frame elements of liberal democracy, especially free trade, as a conspiracy hatched by capitalists, the managerial class, and others with soft hands against American workers. One needn’t renounce liberal democracy as a whole to believe this, though believers often go the whole hog. The second idea is that liberalism itself was another form of totalitarianism all along and, therefore, that no amount of conservative course correction can set right what is wrong with the system.
These two theses together represent a dismaying ideological turn on the right. The first—the account of global capitalism as an imposition of power over the powerless—has gained currency in the pages of American Affairs, the new journal of Trumpian thought, where class struggle is a constant theme. Other conservatives, who were always skeptical of free enterprise and U.S.-led world order, such as the Weekly Standard’s Christopher Caldwell, are also publishing similar ideas to a wider reception than perhaps greeted them in the past.
In a March 2017 essay in the Claremont Review of Books, for example, Caldwell flatly described globalization as a “con game.” The perpetrators, he argued, are “unscrupulous actors who have broken promises and seized a good deal of hard-won public property.” These included administrations of both parties that pursued trade liberalization over decades, people who live in cities and therefore benefit from the knowledge-based economy, American firms, and really anyone who has ever thought to capitalize on global supply chains to boost competitiveness—globalists, in a word.
By shipping jobs and manufacturing processes overseas, Caldwell contended, these miscreants had stolen not just material things like taxpayer-funded research but also concepts like “economies of scale” (you didn’t build that!). Thus, globalization in the West differed “in degree but not in kind from the contemporaneous Eastern Bloc looting of state assets.”
That comparison with predatory post-Communist privatization is a sure sign of ideological overheating. It is somewhat like saying that a consumer bank’s lending to home buyers differs in degree but not in kind from a loan shark’s racket in a housing project. Well, yes, in the sense that the underlying activity—moneylending, the purchase of assets—is the same in both cases. But the context makes all the difference: The globalization that began after World War II and accelerated in the ’90s took place within a rules-based system, which duly elected or appointed policymakers in Western democracies designed in good faith and for a whole host of legitimate strategic and economic reasons.
These policymakers knew that globalization was as old as civilization itself. It would take place anyway, and the only question was whether it would be rules-based and efficient or the kind of globalization that would be driven by great-power rivalry and therefore prone to protectionist trade wars. And they were right. What today’s anti-trade types won’t admit is that defeating the Trans-Pacific Partnership and a proposed U.S.-European trade pact known as TTIP won’t end globalization as such; instead, it will cede the game to other powers that are less concerned about rules and fair play.
The postwar globalizers may have gone too far (or not far enough!). They certainly didn’t give sufficient thought to the losers in the system, or how to deal with the de-industrialization that would follow when information became supremely mobile and wages in the West remained too high relative to skills and productivity gains in the developing world. They muddled and compromised their way through these questions, as all policymakers in the real world do.
The point is that these leaders—the likes of FDR, Churchill, JFK, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and, yes, Bill Clinton—acted neither with malice aforethought nor anti-democratically. It isn’t true, contra Caldwell, that free trade necessarily requires “veto-proof and non-consultative” politics. The U.S., Britain, and other members of what used to be called the Free World have respected popular sovereignty (as understood at the time) for as long as they have been trading nations. Put another way, you were far more likely to enjoy political freedom if you were a citizen of one of these states than of countries that opposed economic liberalism in the 20th century. That remains true today. These distinctions matter.
Caldwell and like-minded writers of the right, who tend to dwell on liberal democracies’ crimes, are prepared to tolerate far worse if it is committed in the name of defeating “globalism.” Hence the speech on Putin that Caldwell delivered this spring at a Hillsdale College gathering in Phoenix. Promising not to “talk about what to think about Putin,” he proceeded to praise the Russian strongman as the “preeminent statesman of our time” (alongside Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan). Putin, Caldwell said, “has become a symbol of national self-determination.”
Then Caldwell made a remark that illuminates the link between the illiberalisms of yesterday and today. Putin is to “populist conservatives,” he declared, what Castro once was to progressives. “You didn’t have to be a Communist to appreciate the way Castro, whatever his excesses, was carving out a space of autonomy for his country.”
Whatever his excesses, indeed.T
he other big idea is that today’s liberal crises aren’t a bug but a core feature of liberalism. This line of thinking is particularly prevalent among some Catholic traditionalists and other orthodox Christians (both small- and capital-“o”). The common denominator, it seems to me, is having grown up as a serious believer at a time when many liberals—to their shame—have declared war on faith generally and social conservatism in particular.
The argument essentially is this:
We (social conservatives, traditionalists) saw the threat from liberalism coming. With its claims about abstract rights and universal reason, classical liberalism had always posed a danger to the Church and to people of God. We remembered what those fired up by the new ideas did to our nuns and altars in France. Still we made peace with American liberal order, because we were told that the Founders had “built on low but solid ground,” to borrow Leo Strauss’s famous formulation, or that they had “built better than they knew,” as American Catholic hierarchs in the 19th century put it.
Maybe these promises held good for a couple of centuries, the argument continues, but they no longer do. Witness the second sexual revolution under way today. The revolutionaries are plainly telling us that we must either conform our beliefs to Herod’s ways or be driven from the democratic public square. Can it still be said that the Founding rested on solid ground? Did the Founders really build better than they knew? Or is what is passing now precisely what they intended, the rotten fruit of the Enlightenment universalism that they planted in the Constitution? We don’t love Trump (or Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, etc.), but perhaps he can counter the pincer movement of sexual and economic liberalism, and restore a measure of solidarity and commitment to the Western project.
The most pessimistic of these illiberal critics go so far as to argue that liberalism isn’t all that different from Communism, that both are totalitarian children of the Enlightenment. One such critic, Harvard Law School’s Adrian Vermeule, summed up this position in a January essay in First Things magazine:
The stock distinction between the Enlightenment’s twins—communism is violently coercive while liberalism allows freedom of thought—is glib. Illiberal citizens, trapped [under liberalism] without exit papers, suffer a narrowing sphere of permitted action and speech, shrinking prospects, and increasing pressure from regulators, employers, and acquaintances, and even from friends and family. Liberal society celebrates toleration, diversity, and free inquiry, but in practice it features a spreading social, cultural, and ideological conformism.1
I share Vermeule’s despair and that of many other conservative-Christian friends, because there have been genuinely alarming encroachments against conscience, religious freedom, and the dignity of life in Western liberal democracies in recent years. Even so, despair is an unhelpful companion to sober political thought, and the case for plunging into political illiberalism is weak, even on social-conservative grounds.
Here again what commends liberalism is historical experience, not abstract theory. Simply put, in the real-world experience of the 20th century, the Church, tradition, and religious minorities fared far better under liberal-democratic regimes than they did under illiberal alternatives. Are coercion and conformity targeting people of faith under liberalism? To be sure. But these don’t take the form of the gulag or the concentration camp or the soccer stadium–cum-killing field. Catholic political practice knows well how to draw such moral distinctions between regimes: Pope John Paul II befriended Reagan. If liberal democracy and Communism were indeed “twins” whose distinctions are “glib,” why did he do so?
And as Pascal Bruckner wrote in his essay “The Tyranny of Guilt,” if liberal democracy does trap or jail you (politically speaking), it also invariably slips the key under your cell door. The Swedish midwives driven out of the profession over their pro-life views can take their story to the media. The Down syndrome advocacy outfit whose anti-eugenic advertising was censored in France can sue in national and then international courts. The Little Sisters of the Poor can appeal to the Supreme Court for a conscience exemption to Obamacare’s contraceptives mandate. And so on.
Conversely, once you go illiberal, you don’t just rid yourself of the NGOs and doctrinaire bureaucrats bent on forcing priests to perform gay marriages; you also lose the legal guarantees that protect the Church, however imperfectly, against capricious rulers and popular majorities. And if public opinion in the West is turning increasingly secular, indeed anti-Christian, as social conservatives complain and surveys seem to confirm, is it really a good idea to militate in favor of a more illiberal order rather than defend tooth and nail liberal principles of freedom of conscience? For tomorrow, the state might fall into Elizabeth Warren’s hands.
Nor, finally, is political liberalism alone to blame for the Church’s retreating on various fronts. There have been plenty of wounds inflicted by churchmen and laypeople, who believed that they could best serve the faith by conforming its liturgy, moral teaching, and public presence to liberal order. But political liberalism didn’t compel these changes, at least not directly. In the space opened up by liberalism, and amid the kaleidoscopic lifestyles that left millions of people feeling empty and confused, it was perfectly possible to propose tradition as an alternative. It is still possible to do so.N one of this is to excuse the failures of liberals. Liberals and mainstream conservatives must go back to the drawing board, to figure out why it is that thoughtful people have come to conclude that their system is incompatible with democracy, nationalism, and religious faith. Traditionalists and others who see Russia’s mafia state as a defender of Christian civilization and national sovereignty have been duped, but liberals bear some blame for driving large numbers of people in the West to that conclusion.
This is a generational challenge for the liberal project. So be it. Liberal societies like America’s by nature invite such questioning. But before we abandon the 200-and-some-year-old liberal adventure, it is worth examining the ways in which today’s left-wing and right-wing critiques of it mirror bad ideas that were overcome in the previous century. The ideological ferment of the moment, after all, doesn’t relieve the illiberals of the responsibility to reckon with the lessons of the past.
1 Vermeule was reviewing The Demon in Democracy, a 2015 book by the Polish political theorist and parliamentarian Ryszard Legutko that makes the same case. Fred Siegel’s review of the English edition appeared in our June 2016 issue.
How the courts are intervening to block some of the most unjust punishments of our time
Barrett’s decision marked the 59th judicial setback for a college or university since 2013 in a due-process lawsuit brought by a student accused of sexual assault. (In four additional cases, the school settled a lawsuit before any judicial decision occurred.) This body of law serves as a towering rebuke to the Obama administration’s reinterpretation of Title IX, the 1972 law barring sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding.
Beginning in 2011, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a series of “guidance” documents pressuring colleges and universities to change how they adjudicated sexual-assault cases in ways that increased the likelihood of guilty findings. Amid pressure from student and faculty activists, virtually all elite colleges and universities have gone far beyond federal mandates and have even further weakened the rights of students accused of sexual assault.
Like all extreme victims’-rights approaches, the new policies had the greatest impact on the wrongly accused. A 2016 study from UCLA public-policy professor John Villasenor used just one of the changes—schools employing the lowest standard of proof, a preponderance of the evidence—to predict that as often as 33 percent of the time, campus Title IX tribunals would return guilty findings in cases involving innocent students. Villasenor’s study could not measure the impact of other Obama-era policy demands—such as allowing accusers to appeal not-guilty findings, discouraging cross-examination of accusers, and urging schools to adjudicate claims even when a criminal inquiry found no wrongdoing.
In a September 7 address at George Mason University, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stated that “no student should be forced to sue their way to due process.” But once enmeshed in the campus Title IX process, a wrongfully accused student’s best chance for justice may well be a lawsuit filed after his college incorrectly has found him guilty. (According to data from United Educators, a higher-education insurance firm, 99 percent of students accused of campus sexual assault are male.) The Foundation for Individual Rights has identified more than 180 such lawsuits filed since the 2011 policy changes. That figure, obviously, excludes students with equally strong claims whose families cannot afford to go to court. These students face life-altering consequences. As Judge T.S. Ellis III noted in a 2016 decision, it is “so clear as to be almost a truism” that a student will lose future educational and employment opportunities if his college wrongly brands him a rapist.
“It is not the role of the federal courts to set aside decisions of school administrators which the court may view as lacking in wisdom or compassion.” So wrote the Supreme Court in a 1975 case, Wood v. Strickland. While the Supreme Court has made clear that colleges must provide accused students with some rights, especially when dealing with nonacademic disciplinary questions, courts generally have not been eager to intervene in such matters.
This is what makes the developments of the last four years all the more remarkable. The process began in May 2013, in a ruling against St. Joseph’s University, and has lately accelerated (15 rulings in 2016 and 21 thus far in 2017). Of the 40 setbacks for colleges in federal court, 14 came from judges nominated by Barack Obama, 11 from Clinton nominees, and nine from selections of George W. Bush. Brown University has been on the losing side of three decisions; Duke, Cornell, and Penn State, two each.
Court decisions since the expansion of Title IX activism have not all gone in one direction. In 36 of the due-process lawsuits, courts have permitted the university to maintain its guilty finding. (In four other cases, the university settled despite prevailing at a preliminary stage.) But even in these cases, some courts have expressed discomfort with campus procedures. One federal judge was “greatly troubled” that Georgia Tech veered “very far from an ideal representation of due process” when its investigator “did not pursue any line of investigation that may have cast doubt on [the accuser’s] account of the incident.” Another went out of his way to say that he considered it plausible that a former Case Western Reserve University student was actually “innocent of the charges levied against him.” And one state appellate judge opened oral argument by bluntly informing the University of California’s lawyer, “When I . . . finished reading all the briefs in this case, my comment was, ‘Where’s the kangaroo?’”
Judges have, obviously, raised more questions in cases where the college has found itself on the losing side. Those lawsuits have featured three common areas of concern: bias in the investigation, resulting in a college decision based on incomplete evidence; procedures that prevented the accused student from challenging his accuser’s credibility, chiefly through cross-examination; and schools utilizing a process that seemed designed to produce a predetermined result, in response to real or perceived pressure from the federal government.C olleges and universities have proven remarkably willing to act on incomplete information when adjudicating sexual-assault cases. In December 2013, for example, Amherst College expelled a student for sexual assault despite text messages (which the college investigator failed to discover) indicating that the accuser had consented to sexual contact. The accuser’s own testimony also indicated that she might have committed sexual assault, by initiating sexual contact with a student who Amherst conceded was experiencing an alcoholic blackout. When the accused student sued Amherst, the college said its failure to uncover the text messages had been irrelevant because its investigator had only sought texts that portrayed the incident as nonconsensual. In February, Judge Mark Mastroianni allowed the accused student’s lawsuit to proceed, commenting that the texts could raise “additional questions about the credibility of the version of events [the accuser] gave during the disciplinary proceeding.” The two sides settled in late July.
Amherst was hardly alone in its eagerness to avoid evidence that might undermine the accuser’s version of events; the same happened at Penn State, St. Joseph’s, Duke, Ohio State, Occidental, Lynn, Marlboro, Michigan, and Notre Dame.
Even in cases with a more complete evidentiary base, accused students have often been blocked from presenting a full-fledged defense. As part of its reinterpretation of Title IX, the Obama administration sought to shield campus accusers from cross-examination. OCR’s 2011 guidance “strongly” discouraged direct cross-examination of accusers by the accused student—a critical restriction, since most university procedures require the accused student, rather than his lawyer, to defend himself in the hearing. OCR’s 2014 guidance suggested that this type of cross-examination in and of itself could create a hostile environment. The Obama administration even spoke favorably about the growing trend among schools to abolish hearings altogether and allow a single official to serve as investigator, prosecutor, judge, and jury in sexual-assault cases.
The Supreme Court has never held that campus disciplinary hearings must permit cross-examination. Nonetheless, the recent attack on the practice has left schools struggling to explain why they would not want to utilize what the Court has described as the “greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.” In June 2016, the University of Cincinnati found a student guilty of sexual assault after a hearing at which neither his accuser nor the university’s Title IX investigator appeared. In an unintentionally comical line, the hearing chair noted the absent witnesses before asking the accused student if he had “any questions of the Title IX report.” The student, befuddled, replied, “Well, since she’s not here, I can’t really ask anything of the report.” (The panel chair did not indicate how the “report” could have answered any questions.) Cincinnati found the student guilty anyway.1
Limitations on full cross-examination also played a role in judicial setbacks for Middlebury, George Mason, James Madison, Ohio State, Occidental, Penn State, Brandeis, Amherst, Notre Dame, and Skidmore.
Finally, since 2011, more than 300 students have filed Title IX complaints with the Office for Civil Rights, alleging mishandling of their sexual-assault allegation by their college. OCR’s leadership seemed to welcome the complaints, which allowed Obama officials not only to inspect the individual case but all sexual-assault claims at the school in question over a three-year period. Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis has estimated that during the Obama years, colleges spent between $60 million and $100 million on these investigations. If OCR finds a Title IX violation, that might lead to a loss of federal funding. This has led Harvard Law professors Jeannie Suk Gersen, Janet Halley, Elizabeth Bartholet, and Nancy Gertner to observe in a white paper submitted to OCR that universities have “strong incentives to ensure the school stays in OCR’s good graces.”
One of the earliest lawsuits after the Obama administration’s policy shift, involving former Xavier University basketball player Dez Wells, demonstrated how an OCR investigation can affect the fairness of a university inquiry. The accuser’s complaint had been referred both to Xavier’s Title IX office and the Cincinnati police. The police concluded that the allegation was meritless; Hamilton County Prosecuting Attorney Joseph Deters later said he considered charging the accuser with filing a false police report.
Deters asked Xavier to delay its proceedings until his office completed its investigation. School officials refused. Instead, three weeks after the initial allegation, the university expelled Wells. He sued and speculated that Xavier’s haste came not from a quest for justice but instead from a desire to avoid difficulties in finalizing an agreement with OCR to resolve an unrelated complaint filed by two female Xavier students. (In recent years, OCR has entered into dozens of similar resolution agreements, which bind universities to policy changes in exchange for removing the threat of losing federal funds.) In a July 2014 ruling, Judge Arthur Spiegel observed that Xavier’s disciplinary tribunal, however “well-equipped to adjudicate questions of cheating, may have been in over its head with relation to an alleged false accusation of sexual assault.” Soon thereafter, the two sides settled; Wells transferred to the University of Maryland.
Ohio State, Occidental, Cornell, Middlebury, Appalachian State, USC, and Columbia have all found themselves on the losing side of court decisions arising from cases that originated during a time in which OCR was investigating or threatening to investigate the school. (In the Ohio State case, one university staffer testified that she didn’t know whether she had an obligation to correct a false statement by an accuser to a disciplinary panel.) Pressure from OCR can be indirect, as well. The Obama administration interpreted federal law as requiring all universities to have at least one Title IX coordinator; larger universities now employ dozens of Title IX personnel who, as the Harvard Law professors explained, “have reason to fear for their jobs if they hold a student not responsible or if they assign a rehabilitative or restorative rather than a harshly punitive sanction.”A mid the wave of judicial setbacks for universities, two decisions in particular stand out. Easily the most powerful opinion in a campus due-process case came in March 2016 from Judge F. Dennis Saylor. While the stereotypical campus sexual-assault allegation results from an alcohol-filled, one-night encounter between a male and a female student, a case at Brandeis University involved a long-term monogamous relationship between two male students. A bad breakup led to the accusing student’s filing the following complaint, against which his former boyfriend was expected to provide a defense: “Starting in the month of September, 2011, the Alleged violator of Policy had numerous inappropriate, nonconsensual sexual interactions with me. These interactions continued to occur until around May 2013.”
To adjudicate, Brandeis hired a former OCR staffer, who interviewed the two students and a few of their friends. Since the university did not hold a hearing, the investigator decided guilt or innocence on her own. She treated each incident as if the two men were strangers to each other, which allowed her to determine that sexual “violence” had occurred in the relationship. The accused student, she found, sometimes looked at his boyfriend in the nude without permission and sometimes awakened his boyfriend with kisses when the boyfriend wanted to stay asleep. The university’s procedures prevented the student from seeing the investigator’s report, with its absurdly broad definition of sexual misconduct, in preparing his appeal. “In the context of American legal culture,” Boston Globe columnist Dante Ramos later argued, denying this type of information “is crazy.” “Standard rules of evidence and other protections for the accused keep things like false accusations or mistakes by authorities from hurting innocent people.” When the university appeal was denied, the student sued.
At an October 2015 hearing to consider the university’s motion to dismiss, Saylor seemed flabbergasted at the unfairness of the school’s approach. “I don’t understand,” he observed, “how a university, much less one named after Louis Brandeis, could possibly think that that was a fair procedure to not allow the accused to see the accusation.” Brandeis’s lawyer cited pressure to conform to OCR guidance, but the judge deemed the university’s procedures “closer to Salem 1692 than Boston, 2015.”
The following March, Saylor issued an 89-page opinion that has been cited in virtually every lawsuit subsequently filed by an accused student. “Whether someone is a ‘victim’ is a conclusion to be reached at the end of a fair process, not an assumption to be made at the beginning,” Saylor wrote. “If a college student is to be marked for life as a sexual predator, it is reasonable to require that he be provided a fair opportunity to defend himself and an impartial arbiter to make that decision.” Saylor concluded that Brandeis forced the accused student “to defend himself in what was essentially an inquisitorial proceeding that plausibly failed to provide him with a fair and reasonable opportunity to be informed of the charges and to present an adequate defense.”
The student, vindicated by the ruling’s sweeping nature, then withdrew his lawsuit. He currently is pursuing a Title IX complaint against Brandeis with OCR.
Four months later, a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals produced an opinion that lacked Saylor’s rhetorical flourish or his understanding of the basic unfairness of the campus Title IX process. But by creating a more relaxed standard for accused students to make federal Title IX claims, the Second Circuit’s decision in Doe v. Columbia carried considerable weight.
Two Columbia students who had been drinking had a brief sexual encounter at a party. More than four months later, the accuser claimed she was too intoxicated to have consented. Her allegation came in an atmosphere of campus outrage about the university’s allegedly insufficient toughness on sexual assault. In this setting, the accused student found Columbia’s Title IX investigator uninterested in hearing his side of the story. He cited witnesses who would corroborate his belief that the accuser wasn’t intoxicated; the investigator declined to speak with them. The student was found guilty, although for reasons differing from the initial claim; the Columbia panel ruled that he had “directed unreasonable pressure for sexual activity toward the [accuser] over a period of weeks,” leaving her unable to consent on the night in question. He received a three-semester suspension for this nebulous offense—which even his accuser deemed too harsh. He sued, and the case was assigned to Judge Jesse Furman.
Furman’s opinion provided a ringing victory for Columbia and the Obama-backed policies it used. As Title IX litigator Patricia Hamill later observed, Furman’s “almost impossible standard” required accused students to have inside information about the institution’s handling of other sexual-assault claims—information they could plausibly obtain only through the legal process known as discovery, which happens at a later stage of litigation—in order to survive a university’s initial motion to dismiss. Furman suggested that, to prevail, an accused student would need to show that his school treated a female student accused of sexual assault more favorably, or at least provide details about how cases against other accused students showed a pattern of bias. But federal privacy law keeps campus disciplinary hearings private, leaving most accused students with little opportunity to uncover the information before their case is dismissed.
At the same time, the opinion excused virtually any degree of unfairness by the institution. Furman reasoned that taking “allegations of rape on campus seriously and . . . treat[ing] complainants with a high degree of sensitivity” could constitute “lawful” reasons for university unfairness toward accused students. Samantha Harris of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education detected the decision’s “immediate and nationwide impact” in several rulings against accused students. It also played the same role in university briefs that Saylor’s Brandeis opinion did in filings by accused students.
The Columbia student’s lawyer, Andrew Miltenberg, appealed Furman’s ruling to the Second Circuit. The stakes were high, since a ruling affirming the lower court’s reasoning would have all but foreclosed Title IX lawsuits by accused students in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont. But a panel of three judges, all nominated by Democratic presidents, overturned Furman’s decision. In the opinion’s crucial passage, Judge Pierre Leval held that a university “is not excused from liability for discrimination because the discriminatory motivation does not result from a discriminatory heart, but rather from a desire to avoid practical disadvantages that might result from unbiased action. A covered university that adopts, even temporarily, a policy of bias favoring one sex over the other in a disciplinary dispute, doing so in order to avoid liability or bad publicity, has practiced sex discrimination, notwithstanding that the motive for the discrimination did not come from ingrained or permanent bias against that particular sex.” Before the Columbia decision, courts almost always had rebuffed Title IX pleadings from accused students. More recently, judges have allowed Title IX claims to proceed against Amherst, Cornell, California–Santa Barbara, Drake, and Rollins.
After the Second Circuit’s decision, Columbia settled with the accused student, sparing its Title IX decision-makers from having to testify at a trial. James Madison was one of the few universities to take a different course, with disastrous results. A lawsuit from an accused student survived a motion to dismiss, but the university refused to settle, allowing the student’s lawyer to depose the three school employees who had decided his client’s fate. One unintentionally revealed that he had misapplied the university’s own definition of consent. Another cited the importance of the accuser’s slurring words on a voicemail, thus proving her extreme intoxication on the night of the alleged assault. It was left to the accused student’s lawyer, at a deposition months after the decision had been made, to note that the voicemail in question actually was received on a different night. In December 2016, Judge Elizabeth Dillon, an Obama nominee, granted summary judgment to the accused student, concluding that “significant anomalies in the appeal process” violated his due-process rights under the Constitution.niversities were on the losing side of 36 due-process rulings when Obama appointee Catherine Lhamon was presiding over the Office for Civil Rights between 2013 and 2016; no record exists of her publicly acknowledging any of them. In June 2017, however, Lhamon suddenly rejoiced that “yet another federal court” had found that students disciplined for sexual misconduct “were not denied due process.” That Fifth Circuit decision, involving two former students at the University of Houston, was an odd case for her to celebrate. The majority cabined its findings to the “unique facts” of the case—that the accused students likely would have been found guilty even under the fairest possible process. And the dissent, from Judge Edith Jones, denounced the procedures championed by Lhamon and other Obama officials as “heavily weighted in favor of finding guilt,” predicting “worse to come if appellate courts do not step in to protect students’ procedural due process right where allegations of quasi-criminal sexual misconduct arise.”
At this stage, Lhamon, who now chairs the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, cannot be taken seriously when it comes to questions of campus due process. But other defenders of the current Title IX regime have offered more substantive commentary about the university setbacks.
Legal scholar Michelle Anderson was one of the few to even discuss the due-process decisions. “Colleges and universities do not always adjudicate allegations of sexual assault well,” she noted in a 2016 law review article defending the Obama-era policies. Anderson even conceded that some colleges had denied “accused students fairness in disciplinary adjudication.” But these students sued, “and campuses are responding—as they must—when accused students prevail. So campuses face powerful legal incentives on both sides to address campus sexual assault, and to do so fairly and impartially.”
This may be true, but Anderson does not explain why wrongly accused students should bear the financial and emotional burden of inducing their colleges to implement fair procedures. More important, scant evidence exists that colleges have responded to the court victories of wrongly accused students by creating fairer procedures. Some have even made it more difficult for wrongly accused students to sue. After losing a lawsuit in December 2014, Brown eliminated the right of students accused of sexual assault to have “every opportunity” to present evidence. That same year, an accused student showed how Swarthmore had deviated from its own procedures in his case. The college quickly settled the lawsuit—and then added a clause to its procedures immunizing it from similar claims in the future. Swarthmore currently informs accused students that “rules of evidence ordinarily found in legal proceedings shall not be applied, nor shall any deviations from any of these prescribed procedures alone invalidate a decision.”
Many lawsuits are still working their way through the judicial system; three cases are pending at federal appellate courts. Of the two that address substantive matters, oral arguments seemed to reveal skepticism of the university’s position. On July 26, a three-judge panel of the First Circuit considered a case at Boston College, where the accused student plausibly argued that someone else had committed the sexual assault (which occurred on a poorly lit dance floor). Judges Bruce Selya and William Kayatta seemed troubled that a Boston College dean had improperly intruded on the hearing board’s deliberations. At the Sixth Circuit a few days later, Judges Richard Griffin and Amul Thapar both expressed concerns about the University of Cincinnati’s downplaying the importance of cross-examination in campus-sex adjudications. Judge Eric Clay was quieter, but he wondered about the tension between the university’s Title IX and truth-seeking obligations.
In a perfect world, academic leaders themselves would have created fairer processes without judicial intervention. But in the current campus environment, such an approach is impossible. So, at least for the short term, the courts remain the best, albeit imperfect, option for students wrongly accused of sexual assault. Meanwhile, every year, young men entrust themselves and their family’s money to institutions of higher learning that are indifferent to their rights and unconcerned with the injustices to which these students might be subjected.
1 After a district court placed that finding on hold, the university appealed to the Sixth Circuit.
Review of 'Terror in France' By Gilles Kepel
Kepel is particularly knowledgeable about the history and process of radicalization that takes place in his nation’s heavily Muslim banlieues (the depressed housing projects ringing Paris and other major cities), and Terror in France is informed by decades of fieldwork in these volatile locales. What we have been witnessing for more than a decade, Kepel argues, is the “third wave” of global jihadism, which is not so much a top-down doctrinally inspired campaign (as were the 9/11 attacks, directed from afar by the oracular figure of Osama bin Laden) but a bottom-up insurgency with an “enclave-based ethnic-racial logic of violence” to it. Kepel traces the phenomenon back to 2005, a convulsive year that saw the second-generation descendants of France’s postcolonial Muslim immigrants confront a changing socio-political landscape.
That was the year of the greatest riots in modern French history, involving mostly young Muslim men. It was also the year that Abu Musab al-Suri, the Syrian-born Islamist then serving as al-Qaeda’s operations chief in Europe, published The Global Islamic Resistance Call. This 1,600-page manifesto combined pious imprecations against the West with do-it-yourself ingenuity, an Anarchist’s Cookbook for the Islamist set. In Kepel’s words, the manifesto preached a “jihadism of proximity,” the brand of civil war later adopted by the Islamic State. It called for ceaseless, mass-casualty attacks in Western cities—attacks which increase suspicion and regulation of Muslims and, in turn, drive those Muslims into the arms of violent extremists.
The third-generation jihad has been assisted by two phenomena: social-networking sites that easily and widely disseminate Islamist propaganda (thus increasing the rate of self-radicalization) and the so-called Arab Spring, which led to state collapse in Syria and Libya, providing “an exceptional site for military training and propaganda only a few hours’ flight from Europe, and at a very low cost.”
Kepel’s book is not just a study of the ideology and tactics of Islamists but a sociopolitical overview of how this disturbing phenomenon fits within a country on the brink. For example, Kepel finds that jihadism is emerging in conjunction with developments such as the “end of industrial society.” A downturn in work has led to an ominous situation in which a “right-wing ethnic nationalism” preying on the economically anxious has risen alongside Islamism as “parallel conduits for expressing grievances.” Filling a space left by the French Communist Party (which once brought the ethnic French working class and Arab immigrants together), these two extremes leer at each other from opposite sides of a societal chasm, signaling the potentially cataclysmic future that awaits France if both mass unemployment and Islamist terror continue undiminished.
The French economy has also had a more direct inciting effect on jihadism. Overregulated labor markets make it difficult for young Muslims to get jobs, thus exacerbating the conditions of social deprivation and exclusion that make individuals susceptible to radicalization. The inability to tackle chronic unemployment has led to widespread Muslim disillusionment with the left (a disillusionment aggravated by another, often glossed over, factor: widespread Muslim opposition to the Socialist Party’s championing of same-sex marriage). Essentially, one left-wing constituency (unions) has made the unemployment of another constituency (Muslim youth) the mechanism for maintaining its privileges.
Kepel does not, however, cite deprivation as the sole or even main contributing factor to Islamist radicalization. One Parisian banlieue that has sent more than 80 residents to fight in Syria, he notes, has “attractive new apartment buildings” built by the state and features a mosque “constructed with the backing of the Socialist mayor.” It is also the birthplace of well-known French movie stars of Arab descent, and thus hardly a place where ambition goes to die. “The Islamophobia mantra and the victim mentality it reinforces makes it possible to rationalize a total rejection of France and a commitment to jihad by making a connection between unemployment, discrimination, and French republican values,” Kepel writes. Indeed, Kepel is refreshingly derisive of the term “Islamophobia” throughout the book, excoriating Islamists and their fellow travelers for “substituting it for anti-Semitism as the West’s cardinal sin.” These are meaningful words coming from Kepel, a deeply learned scholar of Islam who harbors great respect for the faith and its adherents.
Kepel also weaves the saga of jihadism into the ongoing “kulturkampf within the French left.” Arguments about Islamist terrorism demonstrate a “divorce between a secular progressive tradition” and the children of the Muslim immigrants this tradition fought to defend. The most ironically perverse manifestation of this divorce was ISIS’s kidnapping of Didier François, co-founder of the civil-rights organization SOS Racisme. Kepel recognizes the origins of this divorce in the “red-green” alliance formed decades ago between Islamists and elements of the French intellectual left, such as Michel Foucault, a cheerleader of the Iranian revolution.
Though he offers a rigorous history and analysis of the jihadist problem, Kepel is generally at a loss for solutions. He decries a complacent French elite, with its disregard for genuine expertise (evidenced by the decline in institutional academic support for Islamicists and Arabists) and the narrow, relatively impenetrable way in which it perpetuates itself, chiefly with a single school (the École normale supérieure) that practically every French politician must attend. Despite France’s admirable republican values, this has made the process of assimilation rather difficult. But other than wishing that the public education system become more effective and inclusive at instilling republican values, Kepel provides little in the way of suggestions as to how France emerges from this mess. That a scholar of such erudition and humanity can do little but throw up his hands and issue a sigh of despair cannot bode well. The third-generation jihad owes as much to the political breakdown in France as it does to the meltdown in the Middle East. Defeating this two-headed beast requires a new and comprehensive playbook: the West’s answer to The Global Islamic Resistance Call. That book has yet to be written.
resident Trump, in case you haven’t noticed, has a tendency to exaggerate. Nothing is “just right” or “meh” for him. Buildings, crowds, election results, and military campaigns are always outsized, gargantuan, larger, and more significant than you might otherwise assume. “People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular,” he wrote 30 years ago in The Art of the Deal. “I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.”
So effective, in fact, that the press has picked up the habit. Reporters and editors agree with the president that nothing he does is ordinary. After covering Trump for more than two years, they still can’t accept him as a run-of-the-mill politician. And while there are aspects of Donald Trump and his presidency that are, to say the least, unusual, the media seem unable to distinguish between the abnormal and significant—firing the FBI director in the midst of an investigation into one’s presidential campaign, for example—and the commonplace.
Consider the fiscal deal President Trump struck with Democratic leaders in early September.
On September 6, the president held an Oval Office meeting with Vice President Pence, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, and congressional leaders of both parties. He had to find a way to (a) raise the debt ceiling, (b) fund the federal government, and (c) spend money on hurricane relief. The problem is that a bloc of House Republicans won’t vote for (a) unless the increase is accompanied by significant budget cuts, which interferes with (b) and (c). To raise the debt ceiling, then, requires Democratic votes. And the debt ceiling must be raised. “There is zero chance—no chance—we will not raise the debt ceiling,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in August.
The meeting went like this. First House Speaker Paul Ryan asked for an 18-month increase in the debt ceiling so Republicans wouldn’t have to vote again on the matter until after the midterm elections. Democrats refused. The bargaining continued until Ryan asked for a six-month increase. The Democrats remained stubborn. So Trump, always willing to kick a can down the road, interrupted Mnuchin to offer a three-month increase, a continuing resolution that will keep the government open through December, and about $8 billion in hurricane money. The Democrats said yes.
That, anyway, is what happened. But the media are not satisfied to report what happened. They want—they need—to tell you what it means. And what does it mean? Well, they aren’t really sure. But it’s something big. It’s something spectacular. For example:
1. “Trump Bypasses Republicans to Strike Deal on Debt Limit and Harvey Aid” was the headline of a story for the New York Times by Peter Baker, Thomas Kaplan, and Michael D. Shear. “The deal to keep the government open and paying its debts until Dec. 15 represented an extraordinary public turn for the president, who has for much of his term set himself up on the right flank of the Republican Party,” their article began. Fair enough. But look at how they import speculation and opinion into the following sentence: “But it remained unclear whether Mr. Trump’s collaboration with Democrats foreshadowed a more sustained shift in strategy by a president who has presented himself as a master dealmaker or amounted to just a one-time instinctual reaction of a mercurial leader momentarily eager to poke his estranged allies.”
2. “The decision was one of the most fascinating and mysterious moves he’s made with Congress during eight months in office,” reported Jeff Zeleny, Dana Bash, Deirdre Walsh, and Jeremy Diamond for CNN. Thanks for sharing!
3. “Trump budget deal gives GOP full-blown Stockholm Syndrome,” read the headline of Tina Nguyen’s piece for Vanity Fair. “Donald Trump’s unexpected capitulation to new best buds ‘Chuck and Nancy’ has thrown the Grand Old Party into a frenzy as Republicans search for explanations—and scapegoats.”
4. “For Conservatives, Trump’s Deal with Democrats Is Nightmare Come True,” read the headline for a New York Times article by Jeremy W. Peters and Maggie Haberman. “It is the scenario that President Trump’s most conservative followers considered their worst nightmare, and on Wednesday it seemed to come true: The deal-making political novice, whose ideology and loyalty were always fungible, cut a deal with Democrats.”
5. “Trump sides with Democrats on fiscal issues, throwing Republican plans into chaos,” read the Washington Post headline the day after the deal was announced. “The president’s surprise stance upended sensitive negotiations over the debt ceiling and other crucial policy issues this fall and further imperiled his already tenuous relationships with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan.” Yes, the negotiations were upended. Then they made a deal.
6. “Although elected as a Republican last year,” wrote Peter Baker of the Times, “Mr. Trump has shown in the nearly eight months in office that he is, in many ways, the first independent to hold the presidency since the advent of the two-party system around the time of the Civil War.” The title of Baker’s news analysis: “Bound to No Party, Trump Upends 150 Years of Two-Party Rule.” One hundred and fifty years? Why not 200?
The journalistic rule of thumb used to be that an article describing a political, social, or cultural trend requires at least three examples. Not while covering Trump. If Trump does something, anything, you should feel free to inflate its importance beyond all recognition. And stuff your “reporting” with all sorts of dramatic adjectives and frightening nouns: fascinating, mysterious, unexpected, extraordinary, nightmare, chaos, frenzy, and scapegoats. It’s like a Vince Flynn thriller come to life.
The case for the significance of the budget deal would be stronger if there were a consensus about whom it helped. There isn’t one. At first the press assumed Democrats had won. “Republicans left the Oval Office Wednesday stunned,” reported Rachael Bade, Burgess Everett, and Josh Dawsey of Politico. Another trio of Politico reporters wrote, “In the aftermath, Republicans seethed privately and distanced themselves publicly from the deal.” Republicans were “stunned,” reported Kristina Peterson, Siobhan Hughes, and Louise Radnofsky of the Wall Street Journal. “Meet the swamp: Donald Trump punts September agenda to December after meeting with Congress,” read the headline of Charlie Spiering’s Breitbart story.
By the following week, though, these very outlets had decided the GOP was looking pretty good. “Trump’s deal with Democrats bolsters Ryan—for now,” read the Politico headline on September 11. “McConnell: No New Debt Ceiling Vote until ‘Well into 2018,’” reported the Washington Post. “At this point…picking a fight with Republican leaders will only help him,” wrote Gerald Seib in the Wall Street Journal. “Trump has long warned that he would work with Democrats, if necessary, to fulfill his campaign promises. And Wednesday’s deal is a sign that he intends to follow through on that threat,” wrote Breitbart’s Joel Pollak.
The sensationalism, the conflicting interpretations, the visceral language is dizzying. We have so many reporters chasing the same story that each feels compelled to gussy up a quotidian budget negotiation until it resembles the Ribbentrop–Molotov pact, and none feel it necessary to apply to their own reporting the scrutiny and incredulity they apply to Trump. The truth is that no one knows what this agreement portends. Nor is it the job of a reporter to divine the meaning of current events like an augur of Rome. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And a deal is just a deal.
Remembering something wonderful
Not surprisingly, many well-established performers were left in the lurch by the rise of the new media. Moreover, some vaudevillians who, like Fred Allen, had successfully reinvented themselves for radio were unable to make the transition to TV. But a handful of exceptionally talented performers managed to move from vaudeville to radio to TV, and none did it with more success than Jack Benny, whose feigned stinginess, scratchy violin playing, slightly effeminate demeanor, and preternaturally exact comic timing made him one of the world’s most beloved performers. After establishing himself in vaudeville, he became the star of a comedy series, The Jack Benny Program, that aired continuously, first on radio and then TV, from 1932 until 1965. Save for Bob Hope, no other comedian of his time was so popular.
With the demise of nighttime network radio as an entertainment medium, the 931 weekly episodes of The Jack Benny Program became the province of comedy obsessives—and because Benny’s TV series was filmed in black-and-white, it is no longer shown in syndication with any regularity. And while he also made Hollywood films, some of which were box-office hits, only one, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942), is today seen on TV other than sporadically.
Nevertheless, connoisseurs of comedy still regard Benny, who died in 1974, as a giant, and numerous books, memoirs, and articles have been published about his life and art. Most recently, Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has brought out Jack Benny and the Golden Age of Radio Comedy, the first book-length primary-source academic study of The Jack Benny Program and its star.1 Fuller-Seeley’s genuine appreciation for Benny’s work redeems her anachronistic insistence on viewing it through the fashionable prism of gender- and race-based theory, and her book, though sober-sided to the point of occasional starchiness, is often quite illuminating.
Most important of all, off-the-air recordings of 749 episodes of the radio version of The Jack Benny Program survive in whole or part and can easily be downloaded from the Web. As a result, it is possible for people not yet born when Benny was alive to hear for themselves why he is still remembered with admiration and affection—and why one specific aspect of his performing persona continues to fascinate close observers of the American scene.B orn Benjamin Kubelsky in Chicago in 1894, Benny was the son of Eastern European émigrés (his father was from Poland, his mother from Lithuania). He started studying violin at six and had enough talent to pursue a career in music, but his interests lay elsewhere, and by the time he was a teenager, he was working in vaudeville as a comedian who played the violin as part of his act. Over time he developed into a “monologist,” the period term for what we now call a stand-up comedian, and he began appearing in films in 1929 and on network radio three years after that.
Radio comedy, like silent film, is now an obsolete art form, but the program formats that it fostered in the ’20s and ’30s all survived into the era of TV, and some of them flourish to this day. One, episodic situation comedy, was developed in large part by Jack Benny and his collaborators. Benny and Harry Conn, his first full-time writer, turned his weekly series, which started out as a variety show, into a weekly half-hour playlet featuring a regular cast of characters augmented by guest stars. Such playlets, relying as they did on a setting that was repeated from week to week, were easier to write than the free-standing sketches favored by Allen, Hope, and other ex-vaudevillians, and by the late ’30s, the sitcom had become a staple of radio comedy.
The process, as documented by Fuller-Seeley, was a gradual one. The Jack Benny Program never broke entirely with the variety format, continuing to feature both guest stars (some of whom, like Ronald Colman, ultimately became semi-regular members of the show’s rotating ensemble of players) and songs sung by Dennis Day, a tenor who joined the cast in 1939. Nor was it the first radio situation comedy: Amos & Andy, launched in 1928, was a soap-opera-style daily serial that also featured regular characters. Nevertheless, it was Benny who perfected the form, and his own character would become the prototype for countless later sitcom stars.
The show’s pivotal innovation was to turn Benny and the other cast members into fictionalized versions of themselves—they were the stars of a radio show called “The Jack Benny Program.” Sadye Marks, Benny’s wife, played Mary Livingstone, his sharp-tongued secretary, with three other characters added as the self-reflexive concept took shape. Don Wilson, the stout, genial announcer, came on board in 1934. He was followed in 1936 by Phil Harris, Benny’s roguish bandleader, and, in 1939, by Day, Harris’s simple-minded vocalist. To this team was added a completely fictional character, Rochester Van Jones, Benny’s raspy-voiced, outrageously impertinent black valet, played by Eddie Anderson, who joined the cast in 1938.
As these five talented performers coalesced into a tight-knit ensemble, the jokey, vaudeville-style sketch comedy of the early episodes metamorphosed into sitcom-style scripts that portrayed their offstage lives, as well as the making of the show itself. Scarcely any conventional jokes were told, nor did Benny’s writers employ the topical and political references in which Allen and Hope specialized. Instead, the show’s humor arose almost entirely from the close interplay of character and situation.
Benny was not solely responsible for the creation of this format, which was forged by Conn and perfected by his successors. Instead, he doubled as the star and producer—or, to use the modern term, show runner—closely supervising the writing of the scripts and directing the performances of the other cast members. In addition, he and Conn turned the character of Jack Benny from a sophisticated vaudeville monologist into the hapless butt of the show’s humor, a vain, sexually inept skinflint whose character flaws were ceaselessly twitted by his colleagues, who in turn were given most of the biggest laugh lines.
This latter innovation was a direct reflection of Benny’s real-life personality. Legendary for his voluble appreciation of other comedians, he was content to respond to the wisecracking of his fellow cast members with exquisitely well-timed interjections like “Well!” and “Now, cut that out,” knowing that the comic spotlight would remain focused on the man of whom they were making fun and secure in the knowledge that his own comic personality was strong enough to let them shine without eclipsing him in the process.
And with each passing season, the fictional personalities of Benny and his colleagues became ever more firmly implanted in the minds of their listeners, thus allowing the writers to get laughs merely by alluding to their now-familiar traits. At the same time, Benny and his writers never stooped to coasting on their familiarity. Even the funniest of the “cheap jokes” that were their stock-in-trade were invariably embedded in carefully honed dramatic situations that heightened their effectiveness.
A celebrated case in point is the best-remembered laugh line in the history of The Jack Benny Program, heard in a 1948 episode in which a burglar holds Benny up on the street. “Your money or your life,” the burglar says—to which Jack replies, after a very long pause, “I’m thinking it over!” What makes this line so funny is, of course, our awareness of Benny’s stinginess, reinforced by a decade and a half of constant yet subtly varied repetition. What is not so well remembered is that the line is heard toward the end of an episode that aired shortly after Ronald Colman won an Oscar for his performance in A Double Life. Inspired by this real-life event, the writers concocted an elaborately plotted script in which Benny talks Colman (who played his next-door neighbor on the show) into letting him borrow the Oscar to show to Rochester. It is on his way home from this errand that Benny is held up, and the burglar not only robs him of his money but also steals the statuette, a situation that was resolved to equally explosive comic effect in the course of two subsequent episodes.
No mere joke-teller could have performed such dramatically complex scripts week after week with anything like Benny’s effectiveness. The secret of The Jack Benny Program was that its star, fully aware that he was not “being himself” but playing a part, did so with an actor’s skill. This was what led Ernst Lubitsch to cast him in To Be or Not to Be, in which he plays a mediocre Shakespearean tragedian, a character broadly related to but still quite different from the one who appeared on his own radio show. As Lubitsch explained to Benny, who was skeptical about his ability to carry off the part:
A clown—he is a performer what is doing funny things. A comedian—he is a performer what is saying funny things. But you, Jack, you are an actor, you are an actor playing the part of a comedian and this you are doing very well.
To Be or Not to Be also stands out from the rest of Benny’s work because he plays an identifiably Jewish character. The Jack Benny character that he played on radio and TV, by contrast, was never referred to or explicitly portrayed as Jewish. To be sure, most listeners were in no doubt of his Jewishness, and not merely because Benny made no attempt in real life to conceal his ethnicity, of which he was by all accounts proud. The Jack Benny Program was written by Jews, and the ego-puncturing insults with which their scripts were packed, as well as the schlemiel-like aspect of Benny’s “fall guy” character, were quintessentially Jewish in style.
As Benny explained in a 1948 interview cited by Fuller-Seeley:
The humor of my program is this: I’m a big shot, see? I’m fast-talking. I’m a smart guy. I’m boasting about how marvelous I am. I’m a marvelous lover. I’m a marvelous fiddle player. Then, five minutes after I start shooting off my mouth, my cast makes a shmo out of me.
Even so, his avoidance of specific Jewish identification on the air is noteworthy precisely because his character was a miser. At a time when overt anti-Semitism was still common in America, it is remarkable that Benny’s comic persona was based in large part on an anti-Semitic stereotype—yet one that seems not to have inspired any anti-Semitic attacks on Benny himself. When, in 1945, his writers came up with the idea of an “I Can’t Stand Jack Benny Because . . . ” write-in campaign, they received 270,000 entries. Only three made mention of his Jewishness.
As for the winning entry, submitted by a California lawyer, it says much about what insulated Benny from such attacks: “He fills the air with boasts and brags / And obsolete, obnoxious gags / The way he plays his violin / Is music’s most obnoxious sin / His cowardice alone, indeed, / Is matched by his obnoxious greed / And all the things that he portrays / Show up MY OWN obnoxious ways.” It is clear that Benny’s foibles were seen by his listeners not as particular but universal, just as there was no harshness in the razzing of his fellow cast members, who very clearly loved the Benny character in spite of his myriad flaws. So, too, did the American people. Several years after his TV series was cancelled, a corporation that was considering using him as a spokesman commissioned a national poll to find out how popular he was. It learned that only 3 percent of the respondents disliked him.
Therein lay Benny’s triumph: He won total acceptance from the American public and did so by embodying a Jewish stereotype from which the sting of prejudice had been leached. Far from being a self-hating whipping boy for anti-Semites, he turned himself into WASP America’s Jewish uncle, preposterous yet lovable.W hen the bottom fell out of network radio, Benny negotiated the move to TV without a hitch, debuting on the small screen in 1950 and bringing the radio version of The Jack Benny Program to a close five years later, making it one of the very last radio comedy series to shut up shop. Even after his weekly TV series was finally canceled by CBS in 1965, he continued to star in well-received one-shot specials on NBC.
But Benny’s TV appearances, for all their charm, were never quite equal in quality to his radio work, which is why he clung to the radio version of The Jack Benny Program until network radio itself went under: Better than anyone else, he knew how good the show had been. For the rest of his life, he lived off the accumulated comic capital built up by 21 years of weekly radio broadcasts.
Now, at long last, he belongs to the ages, and The Jack Benny Program is a museum piece. Yet it remains hugely influential, albeit at one or more removes from the original. From The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Danny Thomas Show to Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, and The Larry Sanders Show, every ensemble-cast sitcom whose central character is a fictionalized version of its star is based on Benny’s example. And now that the ubiquity of the Web has made the radio version of his series readily accessible for the first time, anyone willing to make the modest effort necessary to seek it out is in a position to discover that The Jack Benny Program, six decades after it left the air, is still as wonderfully, benignly funny as it ever was, a monument to the talent of the man who, more than anyone else, made it so.
Review of 'The Transferred Life of George Eliot' By Philip Davis
Not that there’s any danger these theoretically protesting students would have read George Eliot’s works—not even the short one, Silas Marner (1861), which in an earlier day was assigned to high schoolers. I must admit I didn’t find my high-school reading of Silas Marner a pleasant experience—sports novels for boys like John R. Tunis’s The Kid from Tomkinsville were inadequate preparation. I must confess, too, that when I was in graduate school, determined to study 17th-century English verse, my reaction to the suggestion that I should also read Middlemarch (1871–72) was “What?! An 800-page novel by the guy who wrote Silas Marner?” A friend patiently explained that “the guy” was actually Mary Ann Evans, born in 1819, died in 1880. Partly because she was living in sin with the literary jack-of-all-trades George Henry Lewes (legally and irrevocably bound to his estranged wife), she adopted “George Eliot” as a protective pseudonym when, in her 1857 debut, she published Scenes from Clerical Life.
I did, many times over and with awe and delight, go on to read Middlemarch and the seven other novels, often in order to teach them to college students. Students have become less and less receptive over the years. Forget modern-day objections to George Eliot’s complex political or religious views. Adam Bede (1859) and The Mill on the Floss (1860) were too hefty, and the triple-decked Middlemarch and Deronda, even if I set aside three weeks for them, rarely got finished.
The middle 20th century was perhaps a more a propitious time for appreciating George Eliot, Henry James, and other 19th-century English and American novelists. Influential teachers like F.R. Leavis at Cambridge and Lionel Trilling at Columbia were then working hard to persuade students that the study of literature, not just poetry and drama but also fiction, matters both to their personal lives—the development of their sensibility or character—and to their wider society. The “moral imagination” that created Middlemarch enriches our minds by dramatizing the complications—the frequent blurring of good and evil—in our lives. Great novels help us cope with ambiguities and make us more tolerant of one another. Many of Leavis’s and Trilling’s students became teachers themselves, and for several decades the feeling of cultural urgency was sustained. In the 1970s, though, between the leftist emphasis on literature as “politics by other means” and the deconstructionist denial of the possibility of any knowledge, literary or otherwise, independent of political power, the high seriousness of Leavis and Trilling began to fade.
The study of George Eliot and her life has gone through many stages. Directly after her death came the sanitized, hagiographic “life and letters” by J.W. Cross, the much younger man she married after Lewes’s death. Gladstone called it “a Reticence in three volumes.” The three volumes helped spark, if they didn’t cause, the long reaction against the Victorian sages generally that culminated in the dismissively satirical work of the Bloomsbury biographer and critic Lytton Strachey in his immensely influential Eminent Victorians (1916). Strachey’s mistreatment of his forbears was, with regard to George Eliot at least, tempered almost immediately by Virginia Woolf. It was Woolf who in 1919 provocatively said that Middlemarch had been “the first English novel for adults.” Eventually, the critical tide against George Eliot was decisively reversed in the ’40s by Joan Bennett and Leavis, who made the inarguable case for her genuine and lasting achievement. That period of correction culminated in the 1960s with Gordon S. Haight’s biography and with interpretive studies by Barbara Hardy and W.J. Harvey. Books on George Eliot over the last four decades have largely been written by specialists for specialists—on her manuscripts or working notes, and on her affiliations with the scientists, social historians, and competing novelists of her day.
The same is true, only more so, of the books written, with George Eliot as the ostensible subject, to promote deconstructionist or feminist agendas. Biographies have done a better job appealing to the common reader, not least because the woman’s own story is inherently compelling. The question right now is whether a book combining biographical and interpretive insight—one “pitched,” as publishers like to say, not just at experts but at the common reader—is past praying for.
Philip Davis, a Victorian scholar and an editor at Oxford University Press, hopes not. His The Transferred Life of George Eliot—transferred, that is, from her own experience into her letters, journals, essays, and novels, and beyond them into us—deserves serious attention. Davis is conscious that George Eliot called biographies of writers “a disease of English literature,” both overeager to discover scandals and too inclined to substitute day-to-day travels, relationships, dealings with publishers and so on, for critical attention to the books those writers wrote. Davis therefore devotes himself to George Eliot’s writing. Alas, he presumes rather too much knowledge on the reader’s part of the day-to-day as charted in Haight’s marvelous life. (A year-by-year chronology at the front of the book would have helped even his fellow Victorianists.)
As for George Eliot’s writing, Davis is determined to refute “what has been more or less said . . . in the schools of theory for the last 40 years—that 19th-century realism is conservatively bland and unimaginative, bourgeois and parochial, not truly art at all.” His argument for the richness, breadth, and art of George Eliot’s realism—her factual and sympathetic depiction of poor and middling people, without omitting a candid representation of the rich—is most convincing. What looms largest, though, is the realist, the woman herself—the Mary Ann Evans who, from the letters to the novels, became first Marian Evans the translator and essayist and then later “her own greatest character”: George Eliot the novelist. Davis insists that “the meaning of that person”—not merely the voice of her omniscient narrators but the omnipresent imagination that created the whole show—“has not yet exhausted its influence nor the larger future life she should have had, and may still have, in the world.”
The transference of George Eliot’s experience into her fiction is unquestionable: In The Mill on the Floss, for example, Mary Ann is Maggie, and her brother Isaac is Tom Tulliver. Davis knows that a better word might be transmutation, as George Eliot had, in Henry James’s words, “a mind possessed,” for “the creations which brought her renown were of the incalculable kind, shaped themselves in mystery, in some intellectual back-shop or secret crucible, and were as little as possible implied in the aspect of her life.” No data-accumulating biographer, even the most exhaustive, can account for that “incalculable . . . mystery.”
Which is why Davis, like a good teacher, gives us exercises in “close reading.” He pauses to consider how a George Eliot sentence balances or turns on an easy-to-skip-over word or phrase—the balance or turn often representing a moment when the novelist looks at what’s on the underside of the cards.
George Eliot’s style is subtle because her theme is subtle. Take D.H. Lawrence’s favorite heroine, the adolescent Maggie Tulliver. The external event in The Mill on the Floss may be the girl’s impulsive cutting off her unruly hair to spite her nagging aunts, or the young woman’s drifting down the river with a superficially attractive but truly impossible boyfriend. But the real “action” is Maggie’s internal self-blame and self-assertion. No Victorian novelist was better than George Eliot at tracing the psychological development of, say, a husband and wife who realize they married each other for shallow reasons, are unhappy, and now must deal with the ordinary necessities of balancing the domestic budget—Lydgate and Rosamund in Middlemarch—or, in the same novel, the religiously inclined Dorothea’s mistaken marriage to the old scholar Casaubon. That mistake precipitates not merely disenchantment and an unconscious longing for love with someone else, but (very finely) a quest for a religious explanation of and guide through her quandary.
It’s the religio-philosophical side of George Eliot about which Davis is strongest—and weakest. Her central theological idea, if one may simplify, was that the God of the Bible didn’t exist “out there” but was a projection of the imagination of the people who wrote it. Jesus wasn’t, in Davis’s characterization of her view, “the impervious divine, but [a man who] shed tears and suffered,” and died feeling forsaken. “This deep acceptance of so-called weakness was what most moved Marian Evans in her Christian inheritance. It was what God was for.” That is, the character of Jesus, and the dramatic play between him and his Father, expressed the human emotions we and George Eliot are all too familiar with. The story helps reconcile us to what is, finally, inescapable suffering.
George Eliot came to this demythologized understanding not only of Judaism and Christianity but of all religions through her contact first with a group of intellectuals who lived near Coventry, then with two Germans she translated: David Friedrich Strauss, whose 1,500-page Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835–36) was for her a slog, and Ludwig Feuerbach, whose Essence of Christianity (1841) was for her a joy. Also, in the search for the universal morality that Strauss and Feuerbach believed Judaism and Christianity expressed mythically, there was Spinoza’s utterly non-mythical Ethics (1677). It was seminal for her—offering, as Davis says, “the intellectual origin for freethinking criticism of the Bible and for the replacement of religious superstition and dogmatic theology by pure philosophic reason.” She translated it into English, though her version did not appear until 1981.
I wish Davis had left it there, but he takes it too far. He devotes more than 40 pages—a tenth of the whole book—to her three translations, taking them as a mother lode of ideational gold whose tailings glitter throughout her fiction. These 40 pages are followed by 21 devoted to Herbert Spencer, the Victorian hawker of theories-of-everything (his 10-volume System of Synthetic Philosophy addresses biology, psychology, sociology, and ethics). She threw herself at the feet of this intellectual huckster, and though he rebuffed her painfully amorous entreaties, she never ceased revering him. Alas, Spencer was a stick—the kind of philosopher who was incapable of emotion. And she was his intellectual superior in every way. The chapter is largely unnecessary.
The book comes back to life when Davis turns to George Henry Lewes, the man who gave Mary Ann Evans the confidence to become George Eliot—perhaps the greatest act of loving mentorship in all of literature. Like many prominent Victorians, Lewes dabbled in all the arts and sciences, publishing highly readable accounts of them for a general audience. His range was as wide as Spencer’s, but his personality and writing had an irrepressible verve that Spencer could only have envied. Lewes was a sort Stephen Jay Gould yoked to Daniel Boorstin, popularizing other people’s findings and concepts, and coming up with a few of his own. He regarded his Sea-Side Studies (1860) as “the book . . . which was to me the most unalloyed delight,” not least because Marian, whom he called Polly, had helped gather the data. She told a friend “There is so much happiness condensed in it! Such scrambles over rocks, and peeping into clear pool [sic], and strolls along the pure sands, and fresh air mingling with fresh thoughts.” In his remarkably intelligent 1864 biography of Goethe, Lewes remarks that the poet “knew little of the companionship of two souls striving in emulous spirit of loving rivalry to become better, to become wiser, teaching each other to soar.” Such a companionship Lewes and George Eliot had in spades, and some of Davis’s best passages describe it.
Regrettably, Davis also offers many passages well below the standard of his best—needlessly repeating an already established point or obfuscating the obvious. Still, The Transferred Lives is the most formidably instructive, and certainly complete, life-and-works treatment of George Eliot we have.