Mark Lilla, shallow professor
Professor Mark Lilla of Columbia University, who we last saw misunderstanding Corey Robin's marvelous book, has finally revealed himself as a "Sex and the City" cultural liberal who thinks Nixon's domestic policies were too liberal-left.
His book review on Charles Keslers' delusional book on Obama is one where I share about 70% agreement, but the rest is what an old friend from Tennessee called a "head shot." It never occurs to Lilla that the destruction of the middle class may be due to the confluence of Reagan and Clinton in opposing labor law reform, opposing tariff policies that would protect American industry and workers in those industries, and their obsessive support for trade deals that codify the trends that undermine American workers' salaries, wages and benefits.
In his zeal to ridicule Kesler, Lilla never feels the need to admit that he likes the very thing that scares Kesler and his allies, which is the rise in personal freedom, particularly for those who want to sleep with and have sexual relations with those of the same sex. This is part of the id for those who feel like Obama portends the culmination of cultural change that so scares these folks.
What surprised me too was the failure of Lilla, the good Nixonian liberal, to focus at all on the issue of Obama's mixed race as something underneath the fear and delusions among the right wing. Gays and blackness are the raw id of the fear: Barack Hussein Obama is president of the United States. He must be some sort of alien radical, right?
But enough of that. That's what most political commentators in the liberal-left blogosphere will focus on in the Lilla review.
For me, I want to show why I think Lilla is not as smart as his Columbia University credentials would lead us to believe, which is quite surprising since Columbia was ground zero for the topic I am to discuss.
Lilla's review assumes Kesler is as deluded to talk about the Germanic influence on American political and scholarly leaders in the late 19th Century, including Woodrow Wilson, as it is to talk about Obama being a wild-eyed socialist.
In fact, in 1922 or 1923, Upton Sinclair wrote a brilliant book about the intellectual and financial corruption in higher education called "The Goose Step," where he noted along the way that most of the college presidents starting in the 1880s were educated in Germany at some point along the way in their lives and were influenced by German philosophers, not merely Hegel, but Kant, Goethe, and a host of other names not normally talked about in most American bars or kitchen tables, Karl Marx loudly excepted, not accepted (The most notorious president of Columbia, Nicholas Murray Butler, who ran Columbia from the end of the 19th and through the first three decades of the 20th Century, kept the German influence going well after many other university presidents had finally begun to abandon it.). In fact, the summary in Wikipedia of Sinclair's book is worth reading because it explains how the financiers and wealthy conservative economic elite were the ones who supported these American university presidents in their zeal for order, efficiency and worker obedience, and supported the pseudo science of eugenics that rightfully make us disgusted, especially since the Nazi era in German history.
Most of these intellectuals at the American universities were scientifically oriented and often critical of religion and religious folkways. That's why poor deluded fellows like Kesler think such folks are "liberal" in the modern sense of the term. These intellectuals, however, were also deeply racist and sexist, unlike the modern cultural liberal, and then often used science to support their racist and sexist prejudices. Lest anyone think these late 19th Century and early 20th Century folks were like New Deal liberals, these men were also strongly anti-labor and pro-capital, and those who lived long enough opposed the New Deal.
That leads us to something else: What made these men marvel at Germany, and things German, in the late 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century was that Germany had very little labor and other internal strife during that time while the US was convulsed in labor strife and angry farmers losing their land during the start of what we would later call "agribusiness." This was also because the famed German chancellor Otto Bismarck, the "conservative liberal," had, in the early to mid-1870s, presided over creation of various government programs designed to blunt what these men most feared, which was revolutionary activity against capitalism and the elite dominated State. Under Bismarck and his initial successors, the German trade union movement was allowed to grow, but only as a brake on the more revolutionary activities Marx and others had not always consistently endorsed (Marx tended toward the revolutionary for Germany, but not England, precisely because there were severe political limitations in Germany that most modern Americans would find equally offensive as Marx did in his time).
Some folks in the libertarian and conservative movement these days love to talk about the eugenics movement as if it was the province of Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes liberals. It was not. It was widespread among the American intellectual and economic elite, and if anything, it was here we saw a reversal of influence: Where American geneticists influenced not only American economic elites, both conservative and liberal, but also German political thinkers and scientists. When mixed with the German Jew-hatred (ever present even in Karl Marx's and Moses Hess' time), eugenics provided the last spark for the rise of Nazism. See Edwin Black's book on the eugenics philosophy that exerted a wide scope and acceptance among the most often conservative economic elite in the USA and then later in Germany.
All of this should be understood because Kesler is not completely wrong to speak of the German connections and influence in the late 19th Century and first decade of the 20th Century America. The problem is where people like Jonah Goldberg and Glenn Beck, and possibly Kesler, want to say this is why the New Deal is fascist and that modern Democratic Party stalwarts who are liberal minded are really fascist and even influenced by German Nazis.
Part of the reason the attacks on the New Deal from that perspective are absurd is that the German influence ended in any conscious way as a result of the anti-German legislation (which Wilson supported) passed by various States after the start of the European "Great War" (later called World War I) in 1914, and the manner in which all things "German" were thereafter deemed foreign, subversive and downright alien.
Again, it is ironic to both Lilla's ignorance and Kesler's politics, that the people in the American elite who were most enamored with things German in the 1920s through late 1930s were the people who opposed the New Deal, people like, ahem, Nicholas Murray Butler of Lilla's Columbia, and folks like William Bullitt and other diplomats in the US State Department. The left-liberal types who liked aspects of Wilson's domestic policies, and who played roles in implementing the New Deal in the 1930s with FDR, had limited their citations of German philosophers for the most part if not completely by then.
In all, Lilla was a perfect reviewer for the NY Times, since he seems to be oblivious to the manner in which American intellectual thought was influenced by Germanic philosophers and politicians in different ways during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. I'm sure he has no idea how much the NY Times itself was part of that line of thinking, and how the Times endorsed Mussolini from the early 1920s through early 1930s, and has been consistently hostile to labor unions in ways that would make Bismarck blush.
Sleep tight, Professor Lilla. You'll live just long enough (he's a year older than me) to see our nation break apart into regions by the 2030s, and only then you may begin to understand how foolish you have been to "cringe at the name McGovern." (See: first page of his review).
FUN NOTE: Wouldn't it be funny to learn that Charles Kesler is himself of German heritage? It might explain why he writes with such verve against German 19th Century liberalism...Self-hatred is a harsh mistress who demands never ending loyalty against the cause. :-)