The New Republic and the Mind Minus Imagination

By David Solway on April 9, 2009

I don’t know about The New Republic. Occasionally an excellent writer, say a Paul Berman or an Adam Hirsch, will embellish its pages and generate a certain positive impact. But its measured tones and prudential camber, giving the impression of considered good sense, is largely deceptive. A vital element seems lacking. Beneath the ostensible judiciousness and studied objectivity there is a curious feel of waffle, an haut goût of empty sophistication, of something not quite kosher. 

Indeed, it is still recovering from the stigma of two of its former associate editors, Ruth Shalit and Stephen Glass, who perpetrated outright news scams. This has not deterred it from publishing several articles by a certain Scott Thomas Beauchamp, husband of New Republic fact-checker Elspeth Reeve, impugning the character of American troops in Iraq and later revealed to be rife with unchecked fabrications.

And I don’t know about its literary editor Leon Wieseltier, a man with a gifted pen and a virile mind, but who suffers from a crippling paralysis of imagination—the occupational hazard of unanchored brilliance. Wieseltier is by no means unique in this affliction, but he does provide an exemplary instance of what I’m tempted to call theaplegia, the inability to envisage a scene or a prospect, or to actually view the subject of one’s discourse. It is an infirmity peculiar to the supra-cerebral and often over-educated intellectual who manifests as an avatar of disinterested plausibility. 

TNRcoverBW.jpgI focus on Wieseltier and his New Republic because they are superbly representative of this condition. A case in point. Wieseltier recently published an essay, Washington Diarist: At The Window, in which he faulted Israel after Operation Cast Lead for “a coarsening of conscience” and for having used “blunt instruments” in the prosecution of the war. His evidence for this unfavorable assessment of Israeli behavior derives from the fact that civilians, including children, deployed as human shields by Hamas resulted in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) having killed non-combatants. “This means,” he pontificates, “only that another way at them, another course of action, must be found. It cannot mean that children may be killed. Morality is a restraining condition.”

Not being a child killer myself, I admit to the initial thrust of his argument. At the same time, it is revelatory of how the unanchored intellect works that Wieseltier does not suggest what this other “course of action” might possibly be. For the fact is that he does not have a single, feasible idea of how, for example, an Israeli soldier, faced with a gunman hiding behind a woman or child and advancing with intent to kill, should respond. Wieseltier cannot imagine himself in a similar predicament or suggest a credible alternative to self-defense that a soldier on the ground might adopt. 

Well, let’s see. Perhaps he should just drop his weapon and reason with his enemy on the assumption that mutual understanding would quickly supervene upon a bullet. Or should he rather offer himself up as a sacrificial victim and permit himself to be shot out of consideration for the principle of a higher morality? Is this what Wieseltier would do, and so deprive The New Republic of its literary editor as a worthy oblation to the Categorical Imperative? Would Wieseltier put his own children at risk so as not to inflict harm upon the children of a proven murderer. Would he refuse to bomb a rocket firing platform embedded in a civic neighborhood out of concern for its inhabitants even if the next missile launched from the premises might strike his own home and lay waste his family? Is this what we would do? 

Of course, the Israeli command did attempt another “course of action,” telephoning ahead and leafletting its targets, signalling to the enemy where it meant to strike. Apart from this being poor military policy, it was also counter-productive. There were fatalities nevertheless, especially since Hamas, warned in advance, often prevented civilians from leaving the targeted site in order to swell the body count and blacken Israel’s reputation in the world press. Exploited by a ruthless enemy, the effort to avoid casualties led to even more casualties. So much for the ethical option, notwithstanding Wieseltier’s fine distinctions or the IDF’s lofty miscalculation. 

Like many intellectuals, Wieseltier prides himself on the lucidity of his moral discriminations and has no difficulty producing limpid formulations that glitter on the page. But, like many intellectuals, his imaginative faculty is pretty well moribund. He cannot transport himself into the situation of the other; he can only pronounce with the authority of the trained but ungrounded intellect on a set of events he is unable to imagine as impinging upon his own life.

Further, in order to make up for this, perhaps instinctively sensed, glaring deficit of empathetic imagination, the erudite but free-floating mind seeks for corroborating information without submitting it to competent analysis or diligent fact-checking—an old New Republic habit and a moral dereliction in its own right. Thus, Wieseltier will cite the “revelations in Haaretz” and claim that they “did not surprise me.” 

Haaretz, a die-hard, left-wing newspaper invariably critical of the defensive actions of the Israeli armed forces, printed the damning comments of a few Israeli soldiers who accused the IDF of killing Palestinian innocents. Wieseltier did not trouble to take into account the paper’s probable motives, given its long and tarnished history similar to that of the New York Times. Nor did he have anything to say when these recriminations proved to have been based on pure hearsay, the accusers not having been present on the scene. Nor did he utter a mea culpa when it very soon became clear that the allegations were the invention of bad faith by those with a documented grudge against their own country.

Wieseltier is also suspicious of Israel’s recently elected Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, “who cannot bring himself to say a good word about a two-state solution.” A little fact-checking would have shown that Netanyahu has indeed committed his government to the two-state solution, but a solution which abides by the letter of the 2003 road map. Netanyahu opposes only the acceleration of the procedure, the so-called “fast tracking” of a process which leapfrogs the preliminary, cumulative steps to the final stages of a negotiated settlement. This is like arriving magically at a destination without having to make the intervening journey and Netanyahu is perfectly right to demur.

To give him his due, Wieseltier does have some harsh things to say about the “racist mullahs in Palestine and beyond” and the existential attacks of the United Nations Human Rights Council against the welfare and bona fides of the Jewish state. This stance enables him to set up an appearance of balance and sound judgment, censuring each side for its failures and depredations. In this way he establishes an equivalence between Israel’s new Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who has been denounced as an intransigent hawk, and Richard Falk, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Palestinian Territories, who is one of Israel’s most venemous and implacable detractors. 

“I propose to fight Avigdor Lieberman as if there is no Richard Falk,” he concludes, “and Richard Falk as if there is no Avigdor Lieberman.” But Wieseltier has set up a false dichotomy since there is no moral correspondence between these two individuals. That Lieberman has accepted the proposition of two states living side by side in guaranteed peace while Falk w ould like to see Israel shrink to indefensible proportions, or be absorbed into a single state, which would be majority Muslim by definition, or disappear from the map entirely does not ruffle Wieseltier’s composure. He simply cannot see the difference between Lieberman and Falk. He cannot conceive that one is struggling to survive and the other laboring to destroy. No more than he can put himself in the place of an Israeli soldier approached by a civilian who may be equipped with a suicide vest or by a Hamas operative hiding behind a child.

What we have here is the same old wishy-washiness and preening affectation of virtue typically associated with The New Republic, which regards itself as a paragon of the elevated left. It is an attitude that defines the mindset of the theaplegic intellectual, prone to a kind of retinal detatchment from the real world. The corollary of this mental state is an obvious reluctance to ascertain the facts which might jeopardize the apparent moral reasonableness of the positions it purports to uphold. But it is best characterized as the illusion of an intellectual sobriety devoid of the visionary power that would allow it to sift the dross from its conjectures. In this respect, the members of the new republic of letters bear a strong filial resemblance to their predecessors.

In the absence of imaginative vigor, of the ability to see oneself in the situation one describes, the theaplegic intellectual can neither sustain nor validate his seemingly noble pronunciamentos. I propose we name the syndrome, which is highly contagious, after one of its most prominent sufferers and call it Wieselteritis. Unfortunately, no cure has yet been found for it.



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