Faux television newscasts produced by the son of a woman who was in a coma when the Berlin Wall fell and whose weak heart, it is feared, could not bear the shock of the change, suggest that - however disappointing socialism’s achievements so far - its ‘might have been’ cannot be dismissed easily; for example, one of the newscasts recodes the spectacle of Easterners clambering over the ruins of the wall toward the land of consumerism and individualism into a counterfactual fantasy of Westerners fleeing from the insecurities and injustices of capitalism toward the collectivist promise of a GDR that never quite was, but might have been. The film thus reminds us that the history of revolution has hitherto limited transformative energies, not liberated them - the apotheosis of this containment-effect being its current troping in advertising.
In this trend, the various so-called ‘velvet revolutions’ in the former Soviet bloc are exemplary: peoples striving for utopia merely got capitalism.
LET US, HOWEVER, RETURN to the war in Vietnam and the response that it has aroused among American intellectuals. A striking feature of the recent debate on Southeast Asian policy has been the distinction that is commonly drawn between “responsible criticism,” on the one hand, and “sentimental,” or “emotional,” or “hysterical” criticism, on the other. There is much to be learned from a careful study of the terms in which this distinction is drawn. The “hysterical critics” are to be identified, apparently, by their irrational refusal to accept one fundamental political axiom, namely that the United States has the right to extend its power and control without limit, insofar as is feasible. Responsible criticism does not challenge this assumption, but argues, rather, that we probably can’t “get away with it” at this particular time and place.
A distinction of this sort seems to be what Irving Kristol, for example, has in mind in his analysis of the protest over Vietnam policy (Encounter, August, 1965). He contrasts the responsible critics, such as Walter Lippmann, the Times, and Senator Fulbright, with the “teach-in movement.” “Unlike the university protesters,” he points out, “Mr. Lippmann engages in no presumptuous suppositions as to ‘what the Vietnamese people really want’—he obviously doesn’t much care—or in legalistic exegesis as to whether, or to what extent, there is ‘aggression’ or ‘revolution’ in South Vietnam. His is a realpolitik point of view; and he will apparently even contemplate the possibility of a nuclear war against China in extreme circumstances.” This is commendable, and contrasts favorably, for Kristol, with the talk of the “unreasonable, ideological types” in the teach-in movement, who often seem to be motivated by such absurdities as “simple, virtuous ‘anti-imperialism,’ “who deliver “harangues on ‘the power structure,’ ” and who even sometimes stoop so low as to read “articles and reports from the foreign press on the American presence in Vietnam.” Furthermore, these nasty types are often psychologists, mathematicians, chemists, or philosophers (just as, incidentally, those most vocal in protest in the Soviet Union are generally physicists, literary intellectuals, and others remote from the exercise of power), rather than people with Washington contacts, who, of course, realize that “had they a new, good idea about Vietnam, they would get a prompt and respectful hearing” in Washington.
I am not interested here in whether Kristol’s characterization of protest and dissent is accurate, but rather in the assumptions on which it rests. Is the purity of American motives a matter that is beyond discussion, or that is irrelevant to discussion? Should decisions be left to “experts” with Washington contacts—even if we assume that they command the necessary knowledge and principles to make the “best” decision, will they invariably do so? And, a logically prior question, is “expertise” applicable—that is, is there a body of theory and of relevant information, not in the public domain, that can be applied to the analysis of foreign policy or that demonstrates the correctness of present actions in some way that psychologists, mathematicians, chemists, and philosophers are incapable of comprehending? Although Kristol does not examine these questions directly, his attitude presupposes answers, answers which are wrong in all cases. American aggressiveness, however it may be masked in pious rhetoric, is a dominant force in world affairs and must be analyzed in terms of its causes and motives. There is no body of theory or significant body of relevant information, beyond the comprehension of the layman, which makes policy immune from criticism. To the extent that “expert knowledge” is applied to world affairs, it is surely appropriate—for a person of any integrity, quite necessary—to question its quality and the goals it serves. These facts seem too obvious to require extended discussion.