Thursday, December 13, 2012

Paul Berman: Power and the Idealists

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Somehow I ended up reading another book by Paul Berman. I'm fairly sure I didn't put it on my list after reading the first, "The Flight of the Idealists," which I found fascinating but entirely esoteric and somewhat maddening, and I've never heard of the man in the subtitle, Joschka Fischer. I'm also fairly certain that I didn't put this book on my list because of the subject matter, because in the same way as I was hard-pressed to find the point of "Flight of the Idealists," I'm not quite sure I can nail down what exactly Paul Berman is on about in "Power and the Idealists: Or, The Passion of Joschka Fischer and its Aftermath." I will consider this a note-to-self not to read another of Berman's books unless I have a Very Good Reason.

 As far as I can tell, "Power and the Idealists" (whoever titles Berman's works is a genius and should be employed by any publisher who aims to succeed, by the way), is a narrative of Berman's belief of what he thinks got us to the second Iraq war, at least from a European standpoint. He traces the movements and beliefs of a few influential "68ers" like the eponymous Fischer, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Bernard Kouchner, various protesters cum politicians/intellectuals, and how their post-WWII rebellions shaped their political views. Turns out that a lot of modern leaders in Europe had histories either directly or tangentially involved with that time of upheaval, and, according to Berman, that these 68ers, by aiming to distinguish themselves from the Nazis and totalitarianism, often found themselves on the side of movements that were actually directly descended from the Nazis. This is totally confusing, right? Yes, in fact, it is, even more so when told with all these complicated characters that you've never heard of, and in Berman's beautiful but florid prose. Here's the first step in the story I think that Berman is trying to tell:
What was New Leftism, then? It was-it pictured itself as-Nazism's opposite and nemesis: the enemy of the real Nazism, the Nazism that had survived Nazism, the Nazism that was built into the foundations of Western life.
The problem is that along the way, while fighting Nazism, sometimes the New Left, now run by the 68ers-turned-politicians, got in bed with the wrong people or made the wrong choices in the name of fighting Nazis. Here's where Joschka Fischer comes in, although I'm going to make it much more explicit than Berman ever does. Joschka Fischer was a part of the New Left, threw sticks, hated Nazis, wasn't into intervention, and eventually became a powerful and popular member of the German government via the Green party, a pacifist group. Most Greens "still insisted on interpreting anti-Nazism to mean anti-imperialism in the left-wing style. Didn't American hegemony pose a terrible danger to Europe and to the world, perhaps the greatest danger of all?" So, when the massacres were going on in the Balkans, the Germans (sorry about this) balked, and the Greens along with everyone else were surprised when Fischer wanted to send troops. Hitler had sent troops to Bosnia: how could the New Left do the same? He chose according to Berman, "antitotalitarianism, humanitarian action, [and] NATO."

By the way, my inclusion of quotations and direct explanations is medal-worthy: like "Flight of the Intellectuals," "Power and the Idealists" includes neither bibliography, footnotes, nor index. And since I'm still trying to read from the library, I've resorted to sticky tabs where I think something might be important, which means I'm paging through 50 noted pages to find this stuff. A publisher who has a good title-writer and no indexer comes out on the negative side. Berman dillies and dallies around the main theme (I think it's the main theme) of what these New Left guys think is worth giving up their pacifist ideals for- massacres? death? nothing?- for 300 pages, and spends the last few on "the Tragedy of Iraq." This chapter is exceptionally thought provoking. Essentially, he proposes the argument that Bush botched the reasons for the war (duh), the war itself (duh), but was possibly not wrong that Saddam Hussein needed to be overthrown, and that Fischer and others would have helped Bush, had he gone about it correctly. By the time Berman gets to this point, it's hard to avoid the fact that the idea that people under totalitarian regimes should take care of business themselves, that it's Wrong for powerful countries to standby. The repulsiveness of the Nazis, and even of the modern Americans, does not make standing by while Saddam or Kim Jong Un does his thing acceptable. As Bernard Kouchner said after attending a peace march in Boston, "I found myself in the middle of a crowd of Democrats, sympathetic types, and not idiots. But when they demanded that America not intervene, they were doing exactly what Saddam wanted them to do... And then, there was this scandalous statistic, this poll- 33 percent of the French preferred Saddam's victory to Bush's!"

I never thought I would think of it that way. It sounds a lot like "if you're not with us, you're against us." But as Berman puts it, perhaps the best test of where the moral authority for military intervention lies "with the victims." (Actually, Berman doesn't put it this way, he ascribes that to Kouchner. Berman leaves a lot of his opinions to the imagination.) Kouchner was a man who had worked to get resolutions passed in the UN that established legal precedents for humanitarian intervention, (again, Berman ascribing to Kouchner,) "expression in international law... of a victim's right to be represented by someone other than his own government." This is the punchline of Berman's book: a bunch of people variously labeled as socialists, communists, anarchists, New Left, 68ers, etc, realizing that perhaps intervention and/or violence could be used for good.  Berman again: "Maybe the strength of the strong was not, by definition, a crime against the weak. Maybe power was a tool that, decently employed, could do a world off good for the most oppressed of the oppressed, just as, in the past, the power of the big Western countries had all too systematically done worlds of harm. Maybe Western strength and imperialist oppression did not have to be synonymous."  Maybe.