Saturday, May 22, 2010

Lee Siegel smacks down Paul Berman and dissects the isolation of intellectuals

This is an amazing review by Lee Siegel, in the NY Observer, of Paul Berman's new book "The Flight of the Intellectuals." The review deftly exposes Berman's terminal adolescent infatuation with "ideas," and provides us a historical context and analogy for that infatuation. (Hat tip to the blog known as "3 Quarks Daily" for the link)

Sigel's attack works on a different level than my attack on Berman when he maliciously libeled the late I.F. Stone. Siegel's attack on Berman is at once more personal and more devastating from a public policy perspective: Siegel is saying Berman is so isolated and so narrow as to be irrelevant and foolish.

I am also glad to read Siegel's historical argument regarding American Trotskyists of the 1930s and 1940s, because for many years, I have noted (in discussions with the few people I know who understand that era) that American Communists in the 1930s were often far more engaged than the Trotskyists and Socialists in positive acts of public domestic policy during that era, whether it was working as labor organizers, actively working (licking envelopes, organizing rallies, lobbying elected officials) to promote laws such as the federal minimum wage law, the eight hour day and the like. Of the Communists, Socialists and Trotskyists, the Trotskyists were most content to sit in cafes and argue about philosophical ideas, and largely avoid any substantive engagement in specific public policies.

Yes, it is true some American Communists of the 1930s were spies for a foreign government. Some American Communists of the 1930s were horrible people who cynically denied the existence of Stalin's murderous ways, or were in an angry sort of psychological (psychotic?) denial on the subject. But it is also true that most American Communists from that era were people of great humanitarian feeling, who stood for America's best values in terms of American domestic public policy issues, and were dedicated to making America stronger and better.

Nonetheless, and appropos of the title of the post, Paul Berman's crack-up is really sad, considering at one time he was really an engaged person, and his prose was sparkling with that engagement. And part of the reason I feel for Berman is that I personally feel my own historical antiquarianism and isolation developing, as my twelve year old daughter says, "Dad, you're always quoting people who are dead!" Plus, my son said my music rant last week was a sign of my impending old age more than anything else...I write this smiling, as he may be right, and certainly my daughter is correct that I do tend to quote historical figures more often than not...I "feel" the 1930s even though I was born in 1957, and to my daughter, even my birth year is positively ancient. When we think of the difference in time between 1835 and 1905, for example, we can see how antiquarian I can look to others when I discuss the 1930s in our time.

I also feel even more isolated from much of the corporate media discourse, though Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Maher remind me I am not alone in that feeling. Still, none of those comedians really count, and I am without sufficient money to attend swank fundraisers to personally meet and discuss specific public policies with candidates. Also, my time to engage in politics is limited as my time is already divided with my son for his Boy Scouts work (I was also the one to practice drive with him as he worked for--and secured--his driver's license), and the daily grind of ensuring both children get their homework done. Then, there is my engagement with work, and at the synagogue where I serve as president. I fell ill again in the middle of this week, and instead of resting this morning, I am reading and posting. My wife is yelling at me to stop--and rest. And she is correct, of course. So, I will rest. Sigh.

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