July 2004
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Day July 29, 2004

Paul Berman and the conflict between liberal society and totalitarianism

A planned series of posts on conflicts within liberal democracy are paused for the moment. It’s been a busy week with work, the Democratic Convention, and some family things to handle.

Over the weekend, however, I finished Paul Berman’s excellent book Terror and Liberalism. Berman’s essay argues the “liberal hawk” position on military action against Afghanistan and Iraq, and argues it well. Far better than Christopher Hitchens has managed to convey in his Fighting Words column on Slate. Berman asks us to understand Islamism and Baathism as two varieties of classical twentieth-century totalitarianism; Baathism a product of Naziism going back to 1943, for example. 1989 represents a watershed year in Euro/American relations, as totalitarian regimes around the world began to fall. In our ignorance of the Muslim world, however, we lacked the ability to detect totalitarianism when we saw it. And thus, we failed to oppose it as we had opposed it in forms ranging from the extreme left to the extreme right. From Fascism to Naziism to Stalinism to the religious authoritarianism of Franco.

Berman is not kind to the Bush Administration for its numerous failures, but unlike most commentators from the left, he asks us to consider whether our automatic rejection of the war is misplaced. Whether we should think more deeply about the underlying issues, and not be distracted by the immediate politics.

I’m finding myself susceptible to Berman’s argument, which helps explain some of the ambivalence I’ve felt in analyzing Hitchens’ work on the war. I am coming to agree with Berman and Hitchens that the left has under-analyzed the war, either because of an automatic pacifism or because our opposition to Bush has blinded us to any deeper arguments for his actions. Of course, it’s easy to understand why the latter occurs. If Bush had been able to articulate the deeper nature of the struggle, instead of rotating through a series of proximate excuses, we might have seen the conflict in its historical context: the century-old struggle between liberal society and the forces, both right and left, that seek to impose a authoritarian vision on society. THAT fight is well worth showing up for, well worth sacrificing for, and still ongoing both abroad and at home.

More on this later, but I would highly recommend Berman’s book as Democrats and progressives move beyond opposition and consider what, precisely, we expect from the Kerry Administration once we put them into office this November.

An expert’s take on jurisdiction stripping

In previous posts (here and here) I’ve tried to understand the constitutionality of HR 3133. The bill would strip jurisdiction over DOMA cases from Federal courts. I learned that Congressional control over jurisdiction is a complex and poorly defined area of constitutional law, and I came away with no clear understanding of HR 3133’s constitutionality.

Eugene Volokh offers an expert’s view on his blog this week, with a link to course notes by Gary Rowe. The latter are especially useful to frame the various positions, and well worth reading.