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A note on liberalism, Corey Robin, and Alexander Cockburn.

July 24, 2012, 1:42 pm

Corey Robin, unhappy with what he takes to be the liberal reaction to Alexander Cockburn’s death (roughly speaking, “good riddance”), writes,

Why is he or she willing to make his or her peace with the American state—despite all its crimes (crimes acknowledged by liberals!)—yet never willing to make his or her peace with critics like Cockburn, whose only “crime,” if you can call it that, was to apologize for the Soviet Union long past its sell by date? Why so much room at the inn for Truman, JFK, or LBJ—all men with real blood on their hands—while people like Cockburn and Chomsky are denied entry?

This seems to me a very peculiar question.

First of all, I’ve never known a liberal at “peace with the American state”. The liberals I’ve known all want the American state to do lots of things differently – to incarcerate fewer people, and to treat those it does imprison more humanely and justly; to educate its citizens better and keep them healthier; to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves; in general to reckon, as Franklin D. Roosevelt said, with “new conditions and problems … beyond the power of men and women to meet”.

Constant criticism, nudging, and agitating for improvement does not seem to me like the same thing as “making peace with”.

Second, pretty much the same goes for liberals’ attitudes toward Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson. I’m not sure what Robin means by “room at the inn.” But none of these men – especially Johnson – gets a pass from liberals.

Robin does not mention FDR, though I did. Here, certainly, is someone with blood on his hands, who committed reprehensible acts. Are liberals “at peace with” him? No. Even though he is by far the best president the US has ever had1, Roosevelt is simply the best president the US has ever had. That might be about as profound a statement as picking out the warmest day in an Alaskan winter.

And yet, of course, Robin is right that liberals generally find some of these presidents worth some praise most of the time, because of course in between their crimes they furthered the cause of liberalism. Which is something that Robin is here inexplicably ignoring; as well as a desire and obligation to oppose wickedness, liberals have positive goals. Liberalism aims at increasing freedom and justice by peaceable means; it includes a high regard for rights and for legal procedures, for free and open inquiry, for parliamentary process, for rule of law.

While Alexander Cockburn did vigorously criticize some aspects of US policy well worth criticizing, he was also a climate change denialist, as well as a Soviet apologist. (I’m not sure why Robin says Cockburn’s only crime is Soviet apologetics.) He hated liberals and liberalism. It’s hard to understand why liberals are supposed to make their peace with such a person, or to give him room at some metaphorical inn.


1For readers new to this blog, this is an ongoing quarrel between me and Ari, who might come back and blog here someday. “by far” is deliberate hyperbole.

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