February 20, 2003

The Character Issue

I keep meaning to mention, for anyone who hasn't happened upon it, that Paul Berman has written a response to the Michael Kelly column which appropriated the facts, though not the analysis, contained in Berman's old piece on Joschka Fischer. Berman, unlike Kelly (and those who have given Kelly's piece an automatic "right on, brother") actually attempts to explain why Fischer, even in the context of his own intellectual and ideological tradition when seen in the kindest possible light, is wrong about the war.

While I admire its originality and the eloquence and energy with which it has been expressed over the years, I don't think I've ever been entirely convinced by the psychological angle of Berman's theory on where the violent New Left went wrong. It's complex and not easily summarized, but essentially it boils down to a kind of "transference," whereby the struggle against remnants of actual Nazism/fascism was extended to include a struggle against Nazism/fascism as a state of mind. The "New Nazis" who had to be destroyed could be practically anyone or anything (real villains to be sure, but also America, Jews, liberals, you name it) leading some of them to make disastrous intellectual and moral choices and errors. As he says, in the Slate piece:

This anti-Nazism of theirs turned out to be foolish in many ways—sometimes criminal, sometimes even Nazi-like at its most grotesque moments, which is why the New Left finally disintegrated. But the anti-Nazi motives were sincere, for all that.

Regardless of what you think of Berman's view of the New Left in its entirety, there's little doubt that the radicals were convinced, rightly or wrongly, of the rectitude of their own anti-fascism. Berman believes, as do I, that the current enemies of the West, whether in Ba'athist or Islamist guise, represent a kind of fascism; and that, in a sense, the "war against Muslim fascism ought to be seen as a continuation of the long struggle against Nazism and fascism in Europe." (No one denies that it's about other things as well, but that alone doesn't discredit the point.)

Why doesn't Fischer (despite this background and along with a great many of his countrymen and "co-thinkers") see it this way? For Kelly, it boils down to a "character issue." Fischer was a "knave" in the '70s and remains one to this day, even though he has exchanged a motorcycle jacket for a suit. If the disagreement over Iraq is viewed solely in terms of a generation's blind spot, there are interesting parallels to be sure: as youths, the Fischers of the world tragically misidentified the enemies of freedom and the open society, and some of them are apparently making a similar mistake today. (It must be noted, however, that Kelly never makes this observation.) Yet Berman's suggestion, that part of it may be because the Bush administration hasn't convincingly or consistently framed this war as a battle against totalitarianism (which is true enough), has at least as much explanatory power, and can't be discounted, whatever you think of Fischer personally.

As I've said before (most recently here and here) I believe there are many more plausible and likely reasons for German diplomatic-political behavior and failings than the radical background of a "rogue Foreign Minister." The generation of '68 have a great deal to answer for, but this is one of those situations where reference to these sins can obscure more than it elucidates. I think it's arguable whether Fischer is, in fact, a "knave." But whether he is or not has very little bearing on the issue of Germany's stance towards the US and the proposed war in Iraq. I imagine Kelly knows it, too.

Posted by Dr. Frank at February 20, 2003 10:49 AM | TrackBack