Thursday, October 19, 2006


In a brief but judicious piece on the history of the idea of totalitarianism, Anson Rabinbach explains (as gently as possible) the two key dangers that liberals face by embracing the notion that the current struggle with Islamic extremism can be usefully analyzed via the word "totalitarianism":
[First,] antitotalitarianism, as I have argued, can both illuminate and obscure. By asserting that totalitarianism encompasses Baathist dictatorship, the Muslim Brotherhood, and al-Qaeda, crucial distinctions are lost. At the same time we are led to believe that, as in the Second World War and the cold war, resolution and military power alone can bring about a democratic outcome. False analogies carry serious consequences.... [Second,] antitotalitarianism, for all its highmindedness, almost always means making a compact with unwelcome allies. Just as the antifascists had to embrace communists during the 1920s and 1930s, just as anticommunist liberals found themselves helpless in drawing boundaries against McCarthyism or against Vietnam hawks, today’s antitotalitarians face a similar dilemma: how to stand their ground against those on the left who wantonly minimize or deny the danger of terrorism and Islamist fundamentalism without at the same time falling into line with the failed neoconservatives whose vision of pax Americana has come to a very bad end.
In other words, there are two basic problems with trying to use the concept of totalitarianism to analyze our current global strategic challenges. First, from a policy perspective, the idea of totalitarianism tends to pave over crucial distinctions which ought to be retained if we are to adopt a properly nuanced strategy in the global struggle against Islamic extremism, on the one hand, and anti-Americanism, on the other. Second, from a political perspective, the antitotalitarian impulse almost always ends up forcing liberals into uncomfortable political coalitions with people they really ought to keep their distance from, be they (neo)McCarthyites or neoconservatives.

To really drive home his point, Rabinbach might have made one additional point, which is that this latter political point is exactly why the Right embraces the concept of totalitarianism: because it undercuts liberals' ability to effectively criticize the Right. So what if the "totalitarian" concept has the collateral effect of screwing up American strategic thinking about our global challenges -- the important thing is that it screws liberals!

Now, I guess I can understand how, if I were a neocon or neoMcCarthyite, I might embrace a concept that while analytically misleading is at least useful for skewering my domestic political enemies. (It's disgusting, but understandable. Then again, one suspects that the reasoning in these circles is actually the reverse: e.g., if it screws my domestic political enemies, then it must be a globally useful theory.) What's completely incomprehensible, however, is why liberals like Paul Berman, George Packer, Ken Pollack or any of the other liberal hawks would themselves embrace a term which is not only analytically pernicious from a policy perspective, but also politically suicidal. The neocons may be knaves, but the liberal hawks are fools.

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