30 January 2013

Sean Wilentz vs. Oliver Stone: three degrees of anti

If I expect Sean Wilentz to attack Thomas Frank for the latter's attack in the current Harper's on Steven Spielberg's Lincoln and the Wilentzian worldview it appears to represent, I'd better not hold my breath. It's been reported in the news for more than two months that Wilentz was gunning for Oliver Stone and his Untold History of the the United States miniseries, but his polemic has only just appeared in the New York Review of Books that reached my mailbox today. Back in November, Wilentz previewed his line of attack, calling the miniseries "ridiculous" and comparing Stone to Glenn Beck. In the same month, Stone pre-emptively dismissed whatever criticism might come from Wilentz, labelling the historian as "very much pro-Clinton, pro-empire." I haven't seen Stone's series -- I don't get the Showtime channel -- so my discussion of Wilentz's review focuses again on the role Wilentz seems to be assign himself as historian if not philosopher of a certain center-left Machiavellianism that vindicates partisan government and pragmatic deal-making to get things done. Since Stone's history, according to second-hand accounts, seems to deal largely with foreign policy, you might wonder where Wilentz would find an opening for attack. He finds it in the figure of Henry Wallace, FDR's second Vice-President, a hero of Stone's story, and an icon for the sort of leftist Wilentz despises.

For Stone, Wallace's career is a crossroads moment of American history. He and his collaborator Peter Kuznick seem to believe that the world might have been spared the Cold War had the Democratic party retained Wallace as FDR's running-mate in the 1944 election -- he would have become President upon FDR's death the following April -- rather than dumping him in favor of Harry Truman.  In Stone's account, Wallace was dumped because he was too liberal and too interested in reaching a peaceful settlement of postwar Europe with Josef Stalin. Wilentz deny these causes of antagonism, but adds that many Democrats disliked Wallace for his perceived aloofness while fearing that his spiritual seeking might embarrass the party. In Stone's account, Truman virtually provoked the Cold War, and ordered the nuking of Japan, mainly to prove he was a tough guy. Wallace's last stand came in 1948, when he ran for President on the Progressive Party line on an anti-Cold War platform. He finished fourth, trailing even Strom Thurmond, and eventually repudiated any perceived sympathies for the Soviet Union.

Neither Wilentz nor Stone would be the first historian to see 1948 as a defining moment for the American left. Wilentz follows those who see Wallace's defeat as a triumph for the principled "anti-communist left," those who, in Wilentz's words, "believed that liberalism and communism were fundamentally opposed, with respect both to social ends and political means." The party of Wallace, on the other hand, "believed that liberalism and communism existed on a continuum, with political freedom at one end and economic freedom on the other." Their heirs, among whom Wilentz includes Stone, were sometimes called "anti-anti-Communists." They are guilty, the reviewer charges, of a "Manichaeanism" that "regarded liberal anticommunism as virtually indistinguishable from -- indeed, as complicit with -- the anticommunism of the right." These groups have battled over the interpretation of Cold War history, the anti-antis tending to downplay Stalin's role in provoking it while the antis insist that Stalin's influence had to be resisted everywhere. This history might not be so controversial if both sides would agree to insert "Stalin" or "Stalinism" wherever they're tempted to refer to "communism" with a small or capital C. The "anticommunism of the right" does equate communism, as envisioned by anyone, with the inevitability of Stalin-style tyranny and indulges in its own "Manichaeanism" by forcing a choice between laissez-faire capitalism and tyranny. The anti-communist left presumably rejects such a choice -- liberals like Wilentz still champion economic regulation and the welfare state -- but can't help seeming more fearful of the threat to their left than the threat to their right. The argument obviously can be made that totalitarianism is worse than plutocracy, but it shouldn't surprise people who make the argument if others think they're siding with the plutocrats. That's the Manichaeanism of the anti-anti-communists that Wilentz deplores. Wilentz himself could well be described as an anti-anti-anti-communist. I wouldn't call him a mere anti-communist because he's not actively engaged in a polemic with actual communists or sympathizers with communism. Instead, he goes after people like Oliver Stone who seem to think that American antagonism toward communism reveals something bad in the national character.

In the end, I wonder whether Wilentz even gets Stone's core position correct. He identifies the director with a "progressive" [scare quotes are his] mindset that "has treated the cold war as the driving force of American empire." That might be backwards. Notice Stone's quickie characterization of Wilentz as "pro-empire" above. In the same interview with Salon Stone says, "We think ... that the issue is empire and we have to stop it." "Empire" is a word that hardly comes up in Wilentz's review apart from the bit just cited. But he might have represented Stone's position more accurately had he written that American empire was the driving force of the cold war. Wilentz wouldn't have to agree with it, but might have been provoked to address the perception of the U.S. as an empire and explain why, if he disagrees with it, that perception is wrong. He closes his article by comparing Stone with Dick Cheney as an intellectual "cherry picker," using only the facts that serve his interests to further his agenda. But in his narrow focus on the Wallace story as the essence of Stone's entire project, hasn't Wilentz done the same thing? However you judge, I suspect Stone and/or Kuznick will have something to say about this; we may hear from him on Wilentz sooner than we hear from Wilentz on Thomas Frank and Abraham Lincoln. Bring on the fireworks either way.


Anonymous said...

"The argument obviously can be made that totalitarianism is worse than plutocracy"

In either case, if you're working class or poor, you get the short end of the stick. But that holds true no matter which form of government you're stuck under.

Samuel Wilson said...

The difference is that the totalitarian often promises that the poor or workers will be better off, while the plutocrat either flaunts his indifference or tells you that the status quo is the best deal you'll ever get. Needless to say, some lies are more appealing than others, depending on the audience.

Anonymous said...

I'm not really concerned with what those at the top claim or feel. My point is that for a common working class or poor person, any form of government NOT controlled by the working class will only serve to exploit the working class. The paradox is that the working class doesn't seem to be overly concerned with running it's own candidates against the "totalitarian" of the left or the "plutocrat" of the right.

In other words, the working class will continue to be exploited because they refuse to say "no".

Samuel Wilson said...

Do you suppose the working class simply believes what the Democrats and their champions like Sean Wilentz say about themselves: that Democrats (or "liberals" in general) are the happy medium -- the caring technocrats -- between the extremes of plutocracy and totalitarianism, no matter what class they come from? Or are they so intimidated by the seeming complexity of government, and the expertise it seems to require, that most would rather entrust it to those who declare themselves the caring experts? If that's the case, must we concede that government can get too "big" for the common people to control, much less actually run it?

Anonymous said...

I don't believe it's a matter of the government getting "too big", but rather of the people failing to hold up their end of the social contract.

If the people are incapable of ruling themselves, there must either be no rule whatsoever or someone must step up and do what the people are unable or unwilling to do for themselves, which I guess one might be tempted to call a tyrant.