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Alienation in A Time of War By: David Horowitz
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, August 06, 2002


More than a decade ago, Peter Collier and I wrote a book about Sixties radicals called Destructive Generation, which provoked — among other responses — one of the most savage attacks on us that anyone has written before or since. The author of this hit, Rick Hertzberg, is now a senior editor at the New Yorker and I mention this otherwise trivial fact in the interest of full disclosure since I am about to address his latest article, which is an attack on the Constitution, and eerily related to the original assault on Collier and myself.

That assault was inspired by a reference we made in our book to Michael Walzer, Hertzberg’s friend and the editor of the socialist magazine Dissent. In Destructive Generation, Collier and I suggested that a key to understanding the radical agendas of Sixties leftists could be found in the alienation they felt from their own heritage. We offered as an example a cover illustration for Ramparts, the radical magazine we once edited. The cover in question featured the photo of an all-American youngster holding the flag of the Communist Vietcong. The cover line said, "Alienation is when your country is at war and you want the other side to win." We linked this extreme statement what we thought was a more temperate version of the same sentiment, which Walzer had expressed. He had said that the only time he felt at home in Washington was when he went there to protest.

This was the trigger of Hertzberg’s attack. In his view, we had conflated Walzer — and by implication himself — with the hate-America, Vietcong-loving radicals of the New Left. To him, this was unfair, and even outrageous. Not only did he and Walzer not share the pro-Communist allegiances of the radicals they had fought them in ideological combats over this very issue. At the Port Huron founding of SDS, their political colleague Michael Harrington had thrown down the gauntlet to the SDS founders for refusing to take an anti-Communist stand. As socialists, Hertzberg and his friends identified with the left and were often fierce in their rejection of American capitalism and its political governors. But it was also true that they were willing to make a separate peace, when the opportunity arose. After the Sixties, Hertzberg had even gone to Washington to write speeches for Jimmy Carter.

Hertzberg’s sensitivity to any link with a left that had slipped its patriotic moorings was a product of the select political space he had chosen as his own. As a "democratic socialist," he belonged to a progressive elite, carrying the torch of the true socialist faith against reactionaries on both sides of the political barricades. At a May Day gathering of Socialist Party veterans held in Washington this year, he unveiled this conceit at the core of his faith:

"I still believe that the anti-communism of the socialist was a superior kind of anti-communism. A lot of people here are all too familiar with the old, long noble struggle for the good name of socialism: the endless explanations that no, socialism isn’t the same as communism, and no, socialism isn’t some milder form of communism, and yes, socialism is in fact the very opposite of communism. That struggle … forced you to think clearly … just what it was you were against and just what it was you were for."
Those outside Hertzberg’s faith, might not be so easily convinced that what he and his vanguard were for was "the very opposite of communism," but his presentation was nothing if not forceful:
"You weren’t against communism because communism had aspirations of equality. You weren’t against communism because communism wanted free medical care for everybody. You were against it because it crushed democracy and terrorized people and ruled by violence and fear, and systematically destroyed the most elementary and indispensable liberties, like freedom of speech."
In other words, being a "democratic socialist" made you an avatar of the best of all possible worlds. It was obviously unforgivable that anyone should attempt to sully your reputation with guilty associations and improper conflations as Peter Collier and I had done.

 

But fate intervened, and the terrorist attack on America had recently caused Hertzberg’s idol, Michael Walzer, to make the same conflation and the same association. Reflecting on 9-11 in a spring editorial for Dissent, in fact, Walzer came remarkably close to the very perception that Collier and I had made that had provoked Hertzberg’s wrath a decade before.

In his editorial, Walzer asked, "Can There Be A Decent Left?" a question provoked by the spectacle of his progressive comrades rushing to judgment against their own country in the wake of 9-11. Walzer wondered about the depths of an alienation that could cause people to refuse to come to the defense of their country even when it was attacked: "Many left intellectuals live in America like internal aliens, refusing to identify with their fellow citizens, regarding any hint of patriot feeling as politically incorrect….Many of the[ir] first responses [manifested a] barely concealed glee that the imperial state had finally gotten what it deserved."

Walzer wanted to know why America should inspire such "resentment" and alienation in radical hearts. "Wasn’t America a beacon of light to the old world, a city on a hill, an unprecedented experiment in democratic politics?"

Two months after Walzer posed these questions, Hertzberg responded with an article in the July 29 issue of the New Yorker, which the editors billed as "Hendrik Hertzberg On Our Flawed Constitution." According to Hertzberg, while America’s democratic values provided an inspiration to the world, America’s institutions did not provide a democratic model of governance that others should follow. Once again he was laying down a marker that separated him from the rest of the crowd. To provide a foil for his argument, Hertzberg referred to a book by Robert Dahl, that asked the question, How Democratic Is Our Constitution?

Challenging America’s founding principles is fair enough, even perhaps at a time when both the nation and its ideals are under ferocious attack. But Hertzberg’s authorial voice in this article has an emotional edge and a disturbing animus that does not seem so fair. From Dahl’s book, for example, Hertzberg cites a negative report card on America’s performance in areas like economic inequality, energy efficiency and social expenditures, and comments: "although Dahl doesn’t mention, this, we [Americans] seem to be getting straight A’s in world domination."

Prefacing his assault, Hertzberg notes that he is not the first to strike at the Founding: "Treating the Constitution as imperfect is not new. The angrier abolitionists saw it, in William Lloyd Garrison’s words, as a ‘covenant with death and an agreement with hell.’… Academic paint balls have splattered the parchment with some regularity." According to Hertzberg, however, this critical facility is confined to intellectual and political elites. For the unwashed mass, questioning the Constitution remains unthinkable: "But in the public square the Constitution is beyond criticism. The American civic religion affords it Biblical or Koranic status, even to the point of seeing it as divinely inspired. It’s the flag in prose." This makes the terrain dangerous for vanguard reformers like himself, particularly now: "The Constitution of the United States is emphatically not something to be debunked, especially in the afterglow of sole-superpower triumphalism."

But can Hertzberg really be referring to this country as one in which the Constitution cannot be challenged? Did he miss the feminist clamor over the Constitution’s failure to protect women, or the movement for an Equal Rights Amendment that this sentiment spawned? Is he oblivious to the complaint from the right that the framers failed to provide a defense clause for the unborn? Was he comatose in the aftermath of the last presidential election when agitated Democrats, including United States senators and the former First Lady, called on the nation to scrap the Electoral College and alter the way the Constitution has mandated our choice of presidents for over two hundred years?

What really upsets Hertzberg is not any superstitious attachment Americans may have to the sacred cow of their Constitution, but his own isolation from the conviction of ordinary Americans that the system has worked pretty well — enough to make America a "beacon of light" to the rest of the world.

Hertzberg’s perverse distance from his countrymen is even more manifest in his opening remarks about the Founding itself "The most blatantly undemocratic feature of the document that the framers adopted in Philadelphia in 1787 was its acceptance — indeed, its enshrinement — of slavery, which in its American form was as vicious and repugnant as any institution ever devised by man."

Ever devised by man? What about Auschwitz? The Soviet gulag? How about the slavery in Egypt that built the pyramids? How about the institution of virgin sacrifice among the Incas? How about black slavery in Cuba or Brazil? Perhaps Hertzberg is unaware that in Carribbean slave societies the mortality rates for slaves exceeded the birth rates. Perhaps he is ignorant of the fact that slavery in the United States was the only slavery in the West whose environment encouraged the natural generation of the slave population so that, between the signing of the Constitution and the Civil War, the slave census in the United States increased more than five-fold, whereas everywhere else in the Hemisphere slaves had to be imported annually to make up the manpower deficit caused by attrition.

To write, as Hertzberg does, that the Constitution enshrined slavery is worse than a mere distortion of the facts. Far from glorifying the institution, the framers avoided even using the words "slave" or "slavery" because the majority of them abhorred the institution and were determined to end it — in fact were convinced it would shortly die of its own reactionary weight.

Hertzberg’s distortion of the intentions of the founders does not end here. Listing the constitutional compromises they made with slavery, he writes,

"Most notoriously, under Article I, Section 2, a state’s allotment of seats in the House of Representatives (and, by extension, its Presidential electors) was determined by counting not only ‘free Persons’ but also ‘three fifths of all other Persons.’ This is simply diabolical, because to the insult of defining a person held in bondage as three-fifths of a human being it added the injury of using that definition to augment the political power of that person’s oppressors."
But far from being either an insult or an injury, the three-fifths compromise actually weakened the power of the Southern slaveholders who had demanded that, "slaves should stand on equality with whites." Had the framers counted slaves as five-fifths — and not merely three-fifths — of a person, they would have maximized the voting power of the slave states.

 

Hertzberg’s distortion of this history is even worse than it appears, because it is based on the suppression of a more basic fact: All the constitutional compromises with slavery were necessary in order to achieve the Union that, within twenty years, abolished the slave trade and, within a single generation, freed the slaves themselves. The only real moral issue involved in the constitutional arrangement was whether the framers should have made any compromise with the slave-holding South. Should there have been a Union at all? On this question the final word belongs to Frederick Douglass, the most important free black person in the Republic, and a former slave himself:

"My argument against the dissolution of the American Union is this: It would place the slave system more exclusively under the control of the slaveholding states, and withdraw it from the power in the Northern states which is opposed to slavery…. I am, therefore, for drawing the bond of the Union more closely, and bringing the Slave States more completely under the power of the Free States." (Douglass, "The Constitution of the United States: Is It Pro-Slavery or Anti-Slavery?" 1860, emphasis added.)

While Douglass’ statement exposes the injustice of Hertzberg’s attack, it also understates it. In 1787, the American founders had just completed the only successful colonial rebellion in human history, defeating the greatest empire of the age. If the Northern states had rejected a compromise with the South, it is perfectly reasonable to imagine the British imperialists (who burned the White House in 1812) would have forged an alliance with the Southern slave states and crushed the North. Then slavery would have been institutionalized throughout the continent; there would have been no Civil War; and it is anyone’s guess when the slaves might eventually have been freed.

Hertzberg acknowledges the amendments outlawing slavery and guaranteeing equal rights that were incorporated into the Constitution after the South’s defeat. "But nothing was done to alter the political institutions that in 1860 had held four million people — one American in eight — in bondage and that, for the next century and, arguably, more, denied millions of their ‘free’ descendants both equal protection and the franchise."

So stated, this is another incomprehensible charge. The enslavement of four million people was not the result of American political institutions but a legacy of the British Empire and the necessity of compromise to hold that empire at bay. But as Hertzberg continues his attack, his logic becomes apparent. Because of America’s flawed political institutions, "even so grotesque and obvious an injustice as apartheid in the public schools [in the South] was beyond the ability of the national government to correct. And when, after ninety years, formal, official school segregation was outlawed the deed was done through the exercise of un-elected, unaccountable, unchecked, quasi-legislative judicial power…"

In short, Hertzberg’s disenchantment with the American system is that it is not "majoritarian." In pursuing social justice, the federal government is unable to ignore state’s rights, judicial precedents, and pretty much all the checks and balances that have made America’s political history different from, say, that of revolutionary France. Like other socialists, Hertzberg yearns for a government that can enforce the General Will and secure social justice through an Assembly, directly elected by the people — one man one vote.

One of the institutions currently thwarting this General Will is the United States Senate. "Once slavery was removed, the most undemocratic remaining provision of the Constitution was, and is, the composition of the Senate — its so-called equality of representation, whereby each state gets two senators, regardless of population." While Hertzberg regards this representation as unfair (he would also not like the Electoral College) the founders, of course, devised it specifically to provide a check on the will of the people, which the founders famously distrusted. The House of Representatives is the chamber known as the "People’s" House because it is elected once every two years instead of six, and is composed of members who represent equal portions of the electorate. The Senate was the framers’ device to slow the machinery of popular justice because they recognized that popular injustice — the tyranny of the majority — was an equally likely result of democratic power unchecked.

Summing up his argument, Hertzberg cites Dahl: "Compared with the political systems of other advanced democratic countries, ours is among the most opaque, complex, confusing, and difficult to understand." On the other hand, along with England’s equally complex constitutional monarchy, it is the most stable democracy that history records. By contrast the advanced democratic countries that Dahl has in mind include France — with its four bloody revolutions and five Republics — and Germany, of which no more need be said.

Ignoring these unpleasant facts, Hertzberg insists on a "true" democracy whose government could run roughshod over communities that don’t agree with his political agendas. Consider the argument he makes against senatorial privilege: "The rejection of the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations after the First World War and then of preparedness on the eve of the Second are only the best known of the Senate’s many acts of foreign policy sabotage, which have continued down to the present, with its refusal to ratify international instruments on genocide, nuclear testing and human rights."

Hertzberg concedes that, "some will take all this as proof that the system has worked exactly as the framers planned," but adds: "To believe that, one must believe that the framers were heartless, brainless reactionaries."

This is the proverbial cat out of the bag: Americans who disagree with Hertzberg are heartless and brainless and reactionary. It is this arrogance, not unusual for social reformers, that made the framers fearful of democratic majorities in the first place, and that made them determined to provide checks that would prevent majorities from tyrannizing everyone else.

The founders were not democrats and socialists like Hertzberg, but conservatives who had a healthy distrust of political passions and who devised a complex system designed to frustrate the schemes of social redeemers and others convinced of their own invincible virtue. If it were not for the immense but undemocratic power vested in the Supreme Court, schools might still be legally segregated. If it were not for rights granted to the states, slavery might have spread throughout the nation. If it were not for the confusing, opaque and difficult to understand American framework, the descendants of Africans who were dragged to this country in chains might not today be the freest and richest blacks in the world.

What makes these ancient issues important now is that our nation is under attack. It must confront its enemies, moreover, in a state weakened by thirty years of cultural assaults from the left that have made many Americans ambivalent about their heritage. Moral ambivalence about one’s country can lead to an uncertainty of resolve in defending it. But there is really no historical justification for Americans to be ambivalent about their history and heritage. As Michael Walzer and President Bush have both pointed out, this nation is still a beacon of freedom to the rest of the world, and its defense is important not only to us, but to them as well.


David Horowitz is the founder of The David Horowitz Freedom Center and author of the new book, One Party Classroom.


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