Brooks and Cohen

Bobo has decided to pose a question:  “Is Radicalism Possible Today?”  He gurgles that the best change is not hasty, as dreamed by the last century’s idealists, but a gradual, grinding conversation.  “Jack Mahoney” from Brunswick, Maine will have things to say to him.  Mr. Cohen, in “Theresa May’s Weak and Wobbly Outfit,” says a feeble hand means a soft Brexit, if one can be negotiated at all.  Here’s Bobo:

Are you feeling radical? Do you think that the status quo is fundamentally broken and we have to start thinking about radical change? If so, I’d like to go back a century so that we might learn how radicalism is done.

The years around 1917 were a great period of radical ferment. Folks at The New Republic magazine were championing progressivism, which would transform how the economy is regulated and how democracy works. At The Masses, left-wing activists were fomenting a global socialist revolution. Outside the White House radical suffragists were protesting for the right to vote and creating modern feminism.

People in those days had one thing we have in abundance: an urge to rebel against the current reality — in their case against the brutalities of industrialization, the rigidities of Victorianism, the stale formulas of academic thinking.

But they also had a whole series of mechanisms they thought they could use to implement change. If you were searching for a new consciousness, there was a neighborhood to go to: Greenwich Village. If you were searching for a dissident lifestyle, there was one — Bohemianism, with its artistic rejection of commercial life.

People had faith in small magazines as the best lever to change the culture and the world. People had faith in the state, in central planning as an effective tool to reorganize the economy and liberate the oppressed. Radicals had faith in the working class, to ally with the intellectuals and form a common movement against concentrated wealth.

There were many people then who had a genius for creating ideals, and for betting their whole lives on an effort to live out these ideals. I’ve just been reading Jeremy McCarter’s inspiring and entertaining new book “Young Radicals,” which is a group portrait of five of those radicals: Walter Lippmann, Randolph Bourne, Max Eastman, Alice Paul and John Reed.

All of them had a youthful and exuberant faith that transformational change was imminently possible. Reed was the romantic adventurer — the one who left Harvard and ventured to be at the center of wherever the action might be — union strikes, the Russian Revolution. Paul was the dogged one — the diminutive activist who gave up sleep, gave up leisure, braved rancid prisons to serve the suffragist movement.

But the two true geniuses were Lippmann and Bourne, who offer lessons on different styles of radicalism. With his magisterial, organized mind, Lippmann threw his lot in with social science, with rule by experts. He believed in centralizing and nationalizing, and letting the best minds weigh the evidence and run the country. He lived his creed, going from socialist journalism to the halls of Woodrow Wilson’s administration.

Bourne was more visionary and vulnerable. He’d grown up in a stiflingly dull WASP town. It was only when he met the cosmopolitan stew of different ethnicities in New York that he got the chance to “breathe a larger air.” At a time of surging immigration, and fierce debate over it, Bourne celebrated that “America is coming to be, not a nationality but a trans-nationality, a weaving back and forth, with the other lands, of many threads of all sizes and colors.”

Bourne believed in decentralized change — personal, spiritual, a revolution in consciousness. The “Beloved Community” he imagined was a bottom-up, Whitmanesque “spiritual welding,” a graceful coming together of unlike ethnicities.

The crucial decision point came as the United States approached entry into World War I. Lippmann supported the war, believing that it would demand more federal planning and therefore would accelerate social change. Bourne was appalled by such instrumentalist thinking, by the acceptance of war’s savagery. As McCarter puts it, “As Bourne has been arguing, no choice that supports a war will realize any ideal worth the name.”

The radicals split between pragmatists willing to work within the system and visionaries who raised larger possibilities from outside. Spreading their ideals, they pushed America forward. Living out their ideals, most were disillusioned. Reed lost faith in the Soviet Union. Lippmann lost faith in Wilson after Versailles. Bourne died marginalized and bitter during the flu epidemic of 1918.

Bourne was the least important radical a century ago, but with his fervent embrace of a decentralized, globalist, cosmopolitan world, he is the most relevant today. He is the best rebuttal to both Trumpian populism and the multicultural separatist movements on the left, who believe in separate graduation ceremonies by race, or that the normal exchange of ideas among people represents cultural appropriation.

Most of the 20th-century radicals were wrong to put their faith in a revolutionary vanguard, a small group who could see farther and know better. Bourne was right to understand that the best change is dialogical, the gradual, grinding conversation, pitting interest against interest, one group’s imperfections against another’s, but bound by common nationhood and humanity.

Are we really going to hand revolutionary power to the state, the intellectuals, the social scientists, the working class or any other class? No. This is not 1917. But can we recommit ourselves to the low but steady process of politics, bartering and exchanging, which is incremental about means but radical about ends? That’s a safer bet.

And now here’s what “Jack Mahoney” has to say about that:

“David, aren’t labels fun?

For example, for the last 40 years, a bloc of voters and politicians has done everything in its power to unravel GOP Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s America that built superhighways and taxed the richest (and therefore those most beholden to the opportunities inherent in a land with so few highwaymen and home invaders) severely.

Somehow, under his Socialist lash, tearing up America to build an Interstate Highway system made up of “freeways,” meaning that drivers could make use of them without paying tolls, the country surged ahead. The GI Bill made going to college and buying a house easier for veterans. In New York City, college tuition was free. This country, which boasts that hard work and determination can make a poor kid into a rich adult, seemed to be coming through on that promise.

Then came the privatizers, waving Ayn Rand as if her prescriptions weren’t the equivalent of L. Ron Hubbard’s, arguing that mutual action denied each of us the opportunity to … what exactly? How does free college adversely impact individuals’ education and the national level of learning? How does allowing the country’s infrastructure to so grossly deteriorate celebrate individual achievement? How does privatizing our occupation forces in Asia make America stronger?

Almost mockingly, the dismantlers of America called themselves conservative, and somehow the supine press has gone along with the joke.

They have ripped out the guts of America. Healthcare’s next.”

Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

The British, sleepwalking into what Will Hutton of The Guardian has called “a national act of self-harm on an epic scale,” have voted to be near ungovernable – a condition in which the enfeebled Prime Minister Theresa May claims she can offer “certainty,” but that in fact constitutes, as she has conceded, a “mess.”

The epic self-harm is, of course, Britain’s planned exit by 2019 from the European Union, the foundation of its prosperity and strategic heft over more than four decades. The self-inflicted mess stems from the prime minister’s humiliation in an election last week: call it May-hem. She is set to limp, vulnerable to the whims of her Conservative Party and to any crisis, into a rickety government propped up by a bunch of rabid Ulster Unionists who are the ideological heirs of the firebrand preacher, Ian Paisley.

An inept campaign saw May promising “strong and stable” government so often it became a joke. Britain, on the eve of a momentous negotiation that will define the lives of the youth who never wanted “Brexit,” now has the opposite: weak and wobbly government. This will mean that May has to compromise more; hence a softer departure from the Union, if there’s enough political coherence even for that. Those who cling, as I do, to the faint hope that Brexit will collapse under the weight of its folly have been given a fillip; this is not over.

May has been repudiated for her arrogance, but above all for her utter vacuity. Almost single-handedly she revived the Labour Party of the leftist Jeremy Corbyn, who at least appeared to believe in something.

May was for remaining in the Union before she was against it; at which point all she could say was “Brexit means Brexit.” This tautology, combined with May’s laughable fantasy of taking Britain “global” by exiting a single market of more than a half-billion people, summed up the nothingness of a decision informed by lies, fueled by jingoism, and spearheaded by charlatans.

The Conservative Party through a double own-goal – first the needless Brexit referendum and then May’s needless snap election – has delivered the country to polarization. The political center has evaporated. The extremes, and The Daily Mail, have won. Economic downturn, fueled by uncertainty, is almost sure to follow.

Together, Britain and the United States have succumbed to a strange delusion of restored greatness, symbolized by May’s embrace of Donald Trump. It is the allies’ un-finest hour. They have turned inward; they have turned nasty. Trump’s planned visit to Britain later this year, a sop to his vainglory that revealed British desperation at the loss of Europe, is on hold – because a sitting American president is that unpopular in London! To sabotage British goodwill toward America to this degree is something, even for Trump.

There is a vacuum where Anglo-American liberalism once stood: Angela Merkel’s Germany and Emmanuel Macron’s France have stepped up to face down Vladimir Putin and his ilk. The postwar order had a good run: 1945-2017.

Fintan O’Toole offered a good summary of Brexit in The New York Review of Books: “Strip away the post-imperial make-believe and the Little England nostalgia, and there’s almost nothing there, no clear sense of how a middling European country with little native industry can hope to thrive by cutting itself off from its biggest trading partner and most important political alliance.”

Still, it’s what the people, or at least a narrow majority, wanted. That has to be respected, unless the people change their mind.

May’s other mantra was, “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal.” That’s off the table, unless Ireland along with British prosperity is to be sacrificed on the Brexit altar. The Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, whose ten seats are now essential to May’s flimsy majority, are anti-abortion and anti-same-sex marriage, but even they are not so retrograde as to want a hard border with Ireland, an E.U. member, imposed as a result of a chaotic exit. Nor do they want the border controls that would accompany British withdrawal from the customs union. May’s D.U.P. dalliance does not come free.

The prime minister will also have to listen more to Conservatives, like Ken Clarke, who have opposed a hard Brexit. She will have to accept that the E.U. is going to exact a price for this decision: Britain cannot have its cake and eat it. If the country wants to remain in the single market, overwhelmingly in its interest, it will have to accept free movement of people, but then, as Hugo Dixon observed on Infacts.org, “Wouldn’t we be better off staying in the E.U., where we have lots of influence?”

Weak and wobbly means weak and wobbly. May could well fall within the next two years, possibly leading to another election. A parliament that is restive may reject any deal she does cobble together. Buyers’ regret was evident in the Labour surge. It is no longer wishful thinking to believe such regret could yet lead to a second referendum, based this time on real terms rather than wretched lies.

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