This is the third in our series of conversations with leftists about the nature of the left and how it is portrayed on DiscoverTheNetwork.org. Prof. Michael Bérubé joined us for the first round in sections One and Two and Prof. Robert Jensen joined us in the second round.
For this final round, we are joined by Timothy Burke, who blogs on Easily Distracted and is an assistant professor in the Dept. of History at Swarthmore College. He specializes in cultural history with a particular interest in popular culture in America, modern imperialism and the history of Africa. His most recent book, Saturday Morning Fever (1999), co-authored with his brother, Kevin Burke, explores American cartoon culture and its influence on Generation X.
FP: Prof. Timothy Burke and David Horowitz, welcome to the third and final part of our series on DiscoverTheNetwork.org. Prof. Burke, let me begin with you. What is your assessment of DiscoverTheNetwork? And can you kindly also tell us where you personally stand on members of the left who ally themselves with the enemy in our terror war?
Burke: On DiscoverTheNetwork, some of my objections have already been ably described by my colleagues. Let me mention a few of my greatest concerns.
First, I think the entire project has an almost non-existent sense of what represents a “linkage” between two separate individuals. This is the bread and butter art of intellectual or political history, the major question in the study of social networks. What is minimally needed to claim a serious or substantial connection between two people in terms of ideas they share, institutional projects they are both contributing to, influences they exert on one another? Whether you’re talking about a connection across time (some individual in the past influencing some individual at a later time) or space (some individual in one society or community influencing another), you have to define what you regard as a meaningful connection, stick to that definition, and provide evidence of it.
DiscoverTheNetwork is justifiably made fun of not for ideological reasons but because it so miserably fails to make it out of the starting gate in this regard. DiscoverTheNetwork operates with an implicit definition of “linkage” that makes allows arbitrary assertions of connections between anyone who annoys its creators. If taken seriously, it would be hard to disallow any connection proposed: you could connect Lynne Stewart to Mayor Bloomberg or Noam Chomsky to Milton Friedman using the idea of linkage operating within the project. It’s rather like the “Kevin Bacon game,” only elevated to a high level of seriousness and polemical aggression.
So first things first. If the project is meant to have any gravity or legitimacy at all, its concept of linkage or connection has to be defined specifically and tightly and that definition has to be binding on its users. For a respectable neo-conservative example, see Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism. Though I disagree strongly with some of the more speculative and far-reaching linkages and conclusions that Berman draws, and the misuse of his arguments by many readers, Berman nevertheless invests a serious amount of work on close textual readings of the written work of figures who interest him and equally serious effort in tracing their actual institutional movements, careers and historical contexts. If that sounds like a lot of work, too bad: it’s the minimal requirement to avoid being a scurrilous effort to carelessly stain people's reputations.
Second. I think DiscoverTheNetwork operates with a very careless, historically ungrounded, painfully loose idea of “the Left.” We’re all careless occasionally in this respect, often equally in describing “the Right” or “conservatism.” These are short-hand phrases, and they usually obscure far more than they reveal. DiscoverTheNetwork’s definition of “the Left” effaces some distinctions between different individuals, projects and histories that are vitally important. It often ends up amalgamating or compressing people whose political or intellectual commitments have frequently made them antagonists on very fundamental levels, who inherit liberal or left (or even centrist) traditions which diverged generations ago or even traditions which have never had any meaningful relation to one another. There isn’t any definition of the “left” here that has content: a term which means anything means nothing. What is the definition of “left” that makes Bill Clinton a leftist? If it’s something like “believes in the positive power of government to intervene in society,” not only is that uselessly general, it is a definition that if honestly applied would make George W. Bush a “moderate leftist” as well.
On the last question that Jamie asks – “where [do] you personally stand on members of the left who ally themselves with the enemy in our war on terror? -- it all comes down to specifics: what is meant by “ally,” who are “the enemy,” and which “terror war? In a case where those specifics are in hand, I certainly can say that I reject such alliances, and I could care less whether those making them are “Left” or “Right;” that is an irrelevant part of the question. To my mind, the misconduct of American soldiers in Abu Ghraib and the clumsy response to that misconduct at the highest levels of the Bush Administration has actively sabotaged the global struggle against illiberal or fundamentalist extremism. That is as much an issue to me as the evasions and double-standard arguments of someone like Michael Moore or Noam Chomsky's compression of moral crisis in the global system to American misconduct.
But in either case -- the neo-conservative mishandling of the war against terror or the evasiveness of certain extremely particular and confined traditions of thought on the left -- I think it would be wrong to use the term “ally.” I think finding Americans (or for that matter citizens of other countries) who are authentically and legitimately describable as “allies” of terrorism is actually exceptionally difficult. It’s a serious charge, that word, and it deserves to be made seriously, rather than used with appalling casualness to describe arguments or views with which one disagrees, however passionate that disagreement might be. Dissent, from both right and left, is patriotic. It’s what we're supposed to be defending in this conflict.
Horowitz: Professor Burke begins with a series of insults – as seems to be the norm for leftists, particularly when discussing issues with conservatives whose work they have not read. But underneath the unearned scorn poured forth in Professor Burke’s first two paragraphs lies an interesting point, in fact the only interesting point that has surfaced in the three conversations so far.
If I could rephrase this point for Professor Burke, it would be that DiscoverTheNetwork doesn’t articulate the rationale for the linkages it makes on the site in a fashion explicit enough to make clear to him and leftists like him what the rationale might be for its construction. (I notice I have received no such critiques of the linkages on DiscoverTheNetwork from conservatives of whatever persuasion. Nor have any liberals for that matter found the categories in the site suspect let alone risible.) In Professor Burke’s view – respectfully rephrased -- DiscoverTheNetwork identifies networks but doesn’t explain why anyone who shares the assumptions and prejudices of the left should take them seriously.
Before addressing this point, I would like to step back and explain why it did not occur to me in the first place that an elaborately articulated rationale for the site would be required (although I did actually provide several articles in the base which would serve that function but which none of my critics seems to have read).
Our political culture generally (and our leftwing culture in particular), has no difficulty identifying an extraordinary range of differing and even opposing viewpoints as belonging to the political right. Libertarians and authoritarians, secularists and fundamentalists, interventionists and anti-interventionists, anti-immigrationists and pro-immigrationists, free traders and anti-free traders, racists and anti-racists, – all are casually and unthinkingly and with no attendant controversy lumped together as the “political right” by leftists like Timothy Burke. The reason there is no attendant controversy is that the arbiters of the culture -- the universities and the reflective media (major metropolitan newspapers, magazines and the public broadcasting networks) are so firmly and unthinkingly in the hands of the left that there is no one to raise the problem outside the conservative universe itself.
As a result this lumping of all conservatives as “right-wingers” takes place unchallenged despite the fact that there is at least as much divergence among groups and individuals that are today called conservative as there is among the individuals and groups called “left” in DiscoverTheNetwork.
On the other hand, confronted by the left’s habitual lumping and labeling of all conservatives as right-wingers and not infrequently including in this category, misogynists, racists and homophobes (e.g. Michael Berube’s unsubstantiated accusations in this discussion) conservatives generally do not resort to ridicule in an effort to dismiss their intellectual opponents out of hand and deny them a place at the table of civilized discourse. Conservatives are in fact quite passive in their acceptance of the discordant and ill-fitting labels that are thrust on them. Perhaps that’s what makes them conservative. They recognize that our knowledge of and ability to describe such complexities are imperfect and will probably remain so. While this imperfection prevails, we have to have descriptive terms for groups that align in clear patterns on opposite sides of many vital issues. By contrast, leftists are people who are unhappy with the real world. They accept nothing and want everything. Consequently they are destined to be as frustrated and unsatisfied with websites like DiscoverTheNetwork as they are with life itself.
As a late blooming conservative who finally came to accept the imperfections of this world, I presumed in designing DiscoverTheNetwork that it was better to show than to tell; better to demonstrate the network itself rather than attempt the impossible task of fully explaining it – that is, of providing an intellectual structure that would completely and satisfactorily locate every individual and organization along a clearly defined political spectrum. To Timothy Burke (and Michael Berube and Robert Jensen) I would say, take a deep breath and look at how you and your political comrades talk about the right, and then look again at your complaints about how conservatives talk about the left in sites like DiscoverTheNetwork.
When you have done this, you will find that we are reasonably careful about making linkages within the site, far more so than any comparable leftist site I am aware of. People are associated in DiscoverTheNetwork if they belong to the same organizations or join common coalitions or share funding sources and ascribe to common agendas. That is the way the database relates them and that is probably the way most of them relate to each other. One reason that we don’t relate them exclusively by commitment to a unifying ideology is that the left hasn’t had a coherent unifying ideology since the death of Stalinism in 1956. In a political career that stretches over more than half a century, I have found that most people involved in politics are not deep or even careful thinkers about the whys and wherefore of the issues and causes that bring them together. This being the case, what is important for the analyst is the fact that they are indeed brought together, and that over time the lines along which they are brought together are etched deep into their identities until eventually it becomes unthinkable for them to cross those lines or to leave the group they have joined.
Most people on the left, for example, embrace positions in advance of understanding either their rationale or implications, or attempting to square them with their progressive theories. How otherwise explain “compassionate” progressives who are opposed to the death penalty for serial killers of small children supporting the court-ordered killing of Terry Schiavo, a severely handicapped individual who committed no crime? How do we explain the determination of progressives to defend a dictator, and oppressor of women, gays and minorities, like Saddam Hussein?
To answer Professor Burke’s specific question about the characterization of Bill Clinton as a “Moderate Leftist” in the database, this label is not applied exclusively or even mainly as a result of his policies or ideas but because of his core associations, alliances and dependencies, and the coalitions that brought him to power. His policies and ideas might very well be described as centrist, though his administration certainly aspired to be more left than it was, and would have been so if it had not been checked by a conservative Congress. Welfare reform was a Republican policy that he signed onto to remain in power; he was not committed in anyway to “ending welfare as we know it” even though that was what he said. Reasonable people may disagree about defining Clinton as a Moderate Leftist because of his associations and political allegiances. But our reasons for including him in the database were not lacking in seriousness, nor would anyone approaching the base with appropriate respect miss this fact.
Professor Burke’s complaint that I did not provide a rationale for the database simply ignores what I have actually written (something I have had to grow used to when dealing with critics from the left). I launched the site with a long explanatory article called “What This Site Is About,” which includes some discussion of the “linkages” which Professor Burke claims are missing. I responded to the initial criticism of the site by immediately writing two lengthy essays called “Defining the Left” and “Defining the Left Further,” which Professor Burke has also ignored but which would have provided him with the answers he appears to be looking for. I invite him to review these explanations and come at me again.
I also invite him to look at my book Unholy Alliance: Radical Islam and the American Left, which is the fruit of fifty years spent either as an activist in the left or studying the left, and which is an extensive effort to define the left as well. The text of Unholy Alliance is in fact the rationale for the construction of the DiscoverTheNetwork site, and in particular the aspect of the site – the inclusion of Islamic radicals – that so distresses its leftwing critics. Professor Burke can also refer to the Issues module of the site and the sections called “Liberalism” and “Progressivism (The Left)” on which we posted (from day one) substantive essays by Barry Loberfeld on this subject which were commissioned especially for the site. He can also find there my article “The Meaning of Left and Right,” which is a chapter from The Politics of Bad Faith.
So in response to Burke’s jibes, I would respond: What the left is laughing at is its own intellectual laziness. It is so used to talking to itself and not listening to anyone else that it has forgotten how to make an argument or recognize when there is one to which it needs to reply. DiscoverTheNetwork is not only the product of years of work say but decades of reflection – and these reflections have been in print and available for more than a very long time.
Professor Burke refers to Paul Berman’s fine book Terror and Liberalism as an example of the kind of analysis and definition that takes hard work and that I should have done. In fact, I have done it and, if I may indulge myself a little, far more systematically and thoroughly. I have done it in Destructive Generation, in Radical Son, in The Politics of Bad Faith, in Hating Whitey and Other Progressive Causes, in Left Illusions and in Unholy Alliance. And I am not alone in this work. Leszek Kolakowski, Francois Furet, Thomas Sowell, Ludwig Von Mises, Friedrich von Hayek, Eric Vogelein, Paul Hollander, Jacob Talmon, Guenter Lewy and many other writers of whom Professor Burke is apparently ignorant, have studied the left and described the linkages that inform the construction of DiscoverTheNetwork.org. The problem Professor Burke has encountered is not of our making. It is a product of the academic world he inhabits where the writings and intellectual traditions of conservatives are actively and pervasively suppressed.
Finally, I am amused (but Paul Berman will not be) by Burke’s reference to Berman as a “neo-conservative.” Berman is someone I have known for twenty years. He is a passionate socialist and a ferociously self-identified leftist, who despises conservatives like myself. The only thing “neo-conservative” about Paul Berman is his grudging but welcome support for the war on terror.
FP: Professor Burke?
Burke: It’s fair for David to challenge me to read the work that he says forms the background of DiscovertheNetwork, and I’ll take up that challenge with an open mind.
However, if David views DiscovertheNetwork as a fair if simplified extraction from that work, there are really only two possibilities. First, that DiscovertheNetwork is so simplified as a representation of his more detailed arguments that it does his lengthier work a terrible injustice. If so, my straightforward suggestion would be to drop DiscovertheNetwork altogether. There is a point at which brevity is no longer the soul of wit, but instead becomes an axe which mutilates an argument or empirical finding indiscriminately. Simplification for the purpose of ready communication does not just involve dropping out definitions, argumentation, content: it involves changing the nature and form of the claims that one makes. If you’re writing a short one-volume history of the world intended for a general audience, you can’t say when challenged that somewhere in a three-page summary of the history of India prior to 1800 you’re still carrying out a detailed analysis of the reign of Chandragupta I, that it’s implicit. At that level of analysis, you don’t just lose details, but the form of the argument has to change. Trying just to compress the details into the sketch never makes for a pretty picture.
This assumes that the cartoonish distortion evident in DiscovertheNetwork is an unfair representation of the detailed argument that David feels he has made elsewhere. If in fact it’s a fair representation, that the details are well-mapped onto the sketch, then detail is not going to make things any better. Let me put it this way: I cannot see an argument that Bill Clinton belongs in the same diagrammatic sketch with Mohammed Atta, no matter what level of detail or depth that argument is made at. It doesn't matter if the concept of connection or link is made in terms of monetary flows, ideological connections, shared histories, lineal bonds: it’s not going to work. Just look at the observation on Bill Clinton: that he is linked to other “moderate leftists” by organizations, coalitions, funding sources, or agendas, but also by the same dint, to everyone within David's “network.” It doesn’t matter how detailed that argument gets, if it is made in that form, it's an arbitrary and unfair one, because at that level of ethereal sense of connection, Bill Clinton is equally linked to “moderate conservatism” -- in fact, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to discern what could not be placed within the network of DiscovertheNetwork. Barry Goldwater late in his life became outspoken on a variety of social issues and civil liberties concerns that connected him to some of the people on DiscovertheNetwork in very tangible ways. Should he put up on the map?
So either DiscovertheNetwork is a bad representation of more detailed work (in which case I wonder why David wants to do it) or it is an accurate representation of more detailed work (in which case the detailed work itself is certain to be overwhelmingly flawed).
I characterized Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism as neo-conservative, not Berman himself, which I think is actually a reasonable characterization, precisely because I think neo-conservatism in relation to September 11th is an intellectual and political movement which encompasses figures historically linked to the right and left, because it is an ideological moment which functions as a bridge between so-called “liberal hawks” or figures coming out of a left tradition like Christopher Hitchens and Norman Geras and figures historically heavily involved in the U.S. Republican Party and conservative politics.
But this to me illustrates the complexity of “linkage” as an idea: that it describes political actors in some of the things that they do, but not in all the things that they do. Someone like Paul Berman can be in one book, one argument, one moment, linked with a political project that puts him in a common room with other political actors who he might otherwise oppose strenuously. You wouldn’t want to just slap him down on a chart, any chart, for exactly that reason. People evolve, people change, people--most of them--have a complexity and texture to the ideas they give voice to and the alliances they form. It is entirely right and proper that we should object to the ripping away of that texture, the loss of that richness of history in something like DiscovertheNetwork.
Horowitz: I am somewhat conflicted in how to reply to this response. On the one hand, I want to commend Professor Burke for recognizing that his attack on DiscoverTheNetwork was based on ignorance and to praise his willingness to fill in the gaps in his knowledge. On the other, I am dismayed by the rashness with which he resumes his attack on DiscoverTheNetwork, referring to it as a “cartoonish distortion” in advance of doing his homework. How can you attack a database you don’t even understand? That was the gravamen of the first part of this discussion and I thought Professor Burke had understood and conceded the point. But apparently not. In this response, he seems to want to preclude any possibility that he might actually have been wrong. This, I’m afraid, is a familiar tic of the ideological left, which feels that it is necessary to reaffirm its faith in advance of any facts.
What Professor Burke needs to grasp before he proceeds to the next attack is that if he were familiar with even one book among the library of conservative texts that have been written to analyze the nature of the left -- Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions, would be one ready-to-hand example -- he would immediately understand why everyone in the database DiscoverTheNetwork is there and belongs there. Of course, even after familiarizing himself with Thomas Sowell’s work or mine, or Gerhart Niemeyer’s, or Leszek Kolakowski’s, he could remain unconvinced. But then he would have to provide an argument as to why the perspective developed in Sowell’s text (or the others) is wrong, along with the evidence to prove it.
DiscoverTheNetwork is not a simplification of the argument of Unholy Alliance as Burke suggests. It is not an argument at all – and this seems to be another missing dimension in Professor Burke’s understanding of what he has criticized. DiscoverTheNetwork is a database. It is a picture of the left, created according to an understanding of the history of left going back to its creation in the French Revolution – an understanding that can be found in an intellectual tradition of conservative critiques, of which Professor Burke is apparently innocent.
Because he fails to understand these basic propositions, the alternative possibilities that Burke poses are not really alternatives at all. DiscoverTheNetwork is neither an accurate representation of my book Unholy Alliance (or any other theoretical work about the nature of the left) nor a bad representation, as Burke posits. It is not an attempt to present a theory at all. It is an effort to map an active movement and its networks. This is why even if it were an accurate representation of similar networks described in Unholy Alliance, it would still be worth doing.
But even this may be overdoing it. Would Professor need an elaborate argument to justify putting David Duke and Jack Kemp in a database of the right, even though Kemp is a libertarian anti-racist and Duke is a fascist? Would he consider ridicule and dismissal of his database as lacking all seriousness fair comment or a reasonable argument?
DiscoverTheNetwork is an attempt to provide a catalogue of the individuals and organizations of the left that is so comprehensive that it could not be contained in a book (something I pointed out in the boilerplate provided for the site itself -- “What This Site Is About?”). The explanation for why the individuals and organizations are there is self-evident to any conservative familiar with the conservative understanding of the left. For those for whom it is not self-evident, there are special texts (Guides and Issues), which are theoretical and explanatory and provided to this end. I have already referred Professor Burke to the articles contained in the main GUIDE and to the articles in the “Progressivism” section of Issues, and I hope he makes himself familiar with them before returning to the discussion.
Professor Burke makes two specific points using Bill Clinton as an example. The first is that no argument could justify putting Bill Clinton “in the same diagrammatic sketch with Mohammed Atta, no matter what level of detail or depth that argument is made at.” The second is that since Bill Clinton is “equally linked to ‘moderate conservatism’” and “moderate lefitsm” he cannot be placed anywhere (because he could be placed everywhere). These objections are actually related. As a professor Burke deals in ideas and wants to be judged by his ideas, and apparently thinks everyone else should be also. But Bill Clinton is a politician. He only succeeds, and in a sense only exists, as a politician through his ability to organize and gain the support of activist constituencies. These constituencies form themselves around political issues. At The end of his first term, Clinton pursued a policy of “triangulation” – embracing conservative policies like welfare reform in order to garner votes among conservatives, because his leftwing base was not large enough to guarantee him a government majority. His advisor Dick Morris told him point blank that he would lose the election if he did not embrace welfare reform and move to the right. These facts do not make Bill Clinton a free-floating, self-defining luftmensch. He is a moderate leader who had to tack to the right to get re-elected, but whose political base is the left.
There is no diagrammatic sketch linking Bill Clinton and Mohammed Atta in the sense that Professor Burke suggests. Perhaps the word “Network” is misleading if it suggests to him. But there are undoubtedly networks in the database which would provide such a link. Is this problematic. The familiar play argues that every person on the planet is linked by six degrees of separation, so why not Clinton and Mohammed Atta? The question is not whether such links can be found, but whether they are significant and whether they matter.
It is here that Professor Burke moves to an extreme when he says that there is no database that could include them no matter what level of detail or depth one goes to. I wonder whether Professor Burke would on reflection want to defend such a statement. In a database of Americans, Polly Klass and her murderer will both be found. In a database of Communists, Leon Trotsky and his murderer will both be found. Michael Moore has defended the Mohammed Atta terrorists as “patriots” and “revolutionaries” and has himself enjoyed the support of the leadership of the Democratic Party despite the fact that he wants America to lose the war in Iraq. Is there no level of detail then that would include people who think like Michael Moore and Bill Clinton who might dissociate himself from Michael Moore (but oddly doesn’t so) in the same database?
Professor Burke’s point about Paul Berman illustrates another confusion in his position. I must confess I find his claim that Paul Berman’s book can be regarded as politically distinct from Paul Berman simply incoherent. Burke views Berman’s book as “neo-conservative” (a movement that he seems to think began on 9/11) even though Berman is a socialist, has been a passionate leftist his entire life and generally despises conservatives.
In Burke’s lexicon “neo-conservatism” seems to mean support for the war in Iraq. A socialist who supports the war in Iraq becomes in Burke’s view a neo-conservative in the very act of doing so. In this usage, “neo-conservatism” is no longer an intellectual concept. It has become merely a derogatory label for people who don’t share Burke’s antagonism to the war. Did Marxists who remained anti-fascists during the period of Stalin’s Pact with Hitler stop being Marxists for those two years? That would seem to be the implication of Burke’s view. In Burke’s handling the concept of “linkage” becomes so “complex” that it sees to have any use at all other that to describe conspiracies or complicities in a specific and clearly defined enterprise. In this argument Burke seems to be objecting to the use of categories like “left” and “right” altogether, because people have views at times and places that don’t obviously confine themselves to the defined limits of left and right. For example, by this reasoning if Joseph Stalin writes a democratic constitution as he did for the Soviet Union in 1936, he cannot be described as a Communist, or a totalitarian.
This is obviously absurd, and I’m sure in his more reflective moments Professor Burke realizes it. The whole world has been talking about “left” and “right” for centuries, even though the complexities that Professor Burke refers to do exist. To understand Paul Berman’s support for the Iraq war, you would have to spend some time understanding Paul Berman’s leftism, and his understanding of the left. Reading his book Terror and Liberalism, would be a good starting point, provided you don’t mistake it for a “neo-conservative text. If you did that, you would not understand him at all.
Professor Burke’s own desire to escape from the contingencies of his and other leftists’ positions and to fly off into the free air of noble intentions and abstract ideals is understandable, given the grievous history of leftwing practice in the 20th Century and its indefensible opposition to the liberation of 25 million Iraqis in the 21st. Understandable as this desire may be, however, it is not intellectually tenable – at least not outside the cozy, self-validating precincts of an academic world that has successfully purged conservative critics from its conversations. This dialogue, on the other hand, is not taking place in an academic setting, and if Professor Burke is going to insist that there is no linkage between Islamic radicals and American leftists, or between the ideals of the left and its totalitarian practices, he is going to have make the case and not merely assert it.
FP: Prof. Timothy Burke and David Horowitz, thank you for joining us. This concludes what we hope will only be the first part of a lengthy series of conversations with the Left about radicalism, leftism, liberalism and conservatism.