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When In Doubt, Demonise

Matt Yglesias has latelystartedtrying to clear a path through the impenetrable bramble that is the foreign policy non-debate about American-Israel relations and the influence of pro-Israel lobbying groups and pro-Israel hawks on the shape of American Near Eastern policy.  Predictably, he has received a lot of grief for making some observations that seem controversial mostly to those who foreign policy and pro-Israel views are more or less implicated in what he writes.  Ezra Klein has a little more on this point.   

It was therefore inevitable that someone should call forth the memory of Charles Lindbergh, every internationalist’s favourite American pinata and hate-figure from the 1930s.  Lindbergh is their target primarily because of his 1941 Des Moines speech for the America First Committee.  Yglesias replies here to the Lindbergh comparison.  In his response, Yglesias easily sees why Goldberg reached so very deep into his bag of tricks for this comparison (what with comparisons between foreign policy debates of today and the 1930s being so rare and unusual at NRO):

I’ll cop to not actually knowing anything about the real historical record of Lindberg [sic], but I take the point of the reference to be a not-so-thinly veiled effort to once again call Wesley Clark and myself anti-semites.

In fact, it isn’t veiled at all.  On the right today, flinging the name Lindbergh (even while pointing to posts where you acknowledge that the person being referred isn’t really nearly as dreadful as everyone would normally take him to be) at anyone has a very simple purpose: to impute on the one hand horrible anti-Jewish prejudice (of which Lindbergh was supposedly guilty) and to imply that the person’s foreign policy views are profoundly immoral (because they are like pre-WWII “isolationism” in some way).  Goldberg makes whatever qualifications about Lindbergh that he does in order to show that he seems to possess some more detailed understanding of the man than the “cartoonish demonization” of him allows, but essentially accepts the fruits of that demonization and relies on the “cartoonish demonization” to do most of the work in his anti-Yglesias post.  He takes it for granted that his audience will read the name Lindbergh and summon to mind the “cartoonish demonization” that generations of New Dealers, internationalists and jingoes have cultivated and made into a conventional part of the narrative of American history.  In this way, he endorses that demonisation and confirms that he is employing the comparison primarily for the purposes of demonising Yglesias. 

It’s a pretty effective, if unethical, rhetorical move, not entirely unlike the well-known Ciceronian ploy of vicious character assassination dressed up as a sort of concession to the accused, “I’m not going to talk about the man’s despicable nature and how he has betrayed his wife and friends…I am going to talk about the matter at hand.”  Thus Goldberg effectively says: “Have you noticed the similarities between Yglesias and Lindbergh, whom I despise?  They’re not entirely similar–they’re just similar in all of the worst possible, anti-Semitic ways.  But don’t take this as an insult, Matt, because I have relatively less contempt for Lindbergh than most people who use these sorts of shoddy attacks.”   

In the exceedingly simple calculations of certain interventionists who use these attacks, if Lindbergh was an anti-Semite and he opposed entry into WWII, it was probably from bad motives and sneaking sympathy with the Axis–both which have been pretty unfairly imputed to Col. Lindbergh.  You can read the Des Moines speech and see for yourself how well-deserved these charges of prejudice and sympathy with the Axis are.  I think it is fair to say that they are essentially untrue.  Those charges represent one of the more famous examples of disgusting lies being deployed against a sincere patriot trying to keep his country from needless war. 

It also somehow follows for such interventionists that whatever held “true” for Lindbergh could be applied in broadbrush fashion to pretty much anyone in the America First Committee and, later, to anyone who looks back at the AFC with anything other than mocking derision.  The demonised caricature of Lindbergh can be readily used against those modern-day non-interventionists who happen to be opposed to the foreign policy views of these very interventionists and pro-Israel hawks, especially when more than a few of these hawks are Jewish.  I’m not saying that any of the connections interventionist make along the way really make any sense, but it is what interventionists and internationalists today often do whenever they fear that a new crop of “isolationists” (i.e., conservatives who think American interests are not served by hyperactive foreign policy and at least one major military adventure per decade) is on the rise.   

Yglesias also catches Goldberg in one of his attempts to read in a message to his opponents’ views that isn’t there.  Goldberg wrote:

Regardless, Lindbergh believed Jews were pushing American foreign policy in an unhealthy direction, and so does Yglesias and, more significantly, so does Wes Clark.

That isn’t what Yglesias or Clark said.  They weren’t speaking about “Jews” as a whole or abstractly as some single-minded entity, as the criticism implies, since everyone understands that these claims are bound to be riddled with exceptions and it can be questionable even to make such sweeping claims.  Come to think of it, essentially no one makes such claims about “Jews” generally.  (This is why it is so crucial for interventionists to circulate the lie that neocon is a “code word” for Jew, so that they can pretend that opponents of these hypernationalist, pro-Israel militarists of all backgrounds are saying outlandish things about “the Jews” when they are not.) 

Goldberg often inserts such a gross overgeneralisation in someone else’s argument.  Here is one example that comes to mind immediately.  When someone makes a specific accusation about a certain faction or interest group, if any one of the accused is a Jewish person Goldberg will declare that the accuser has made outrageous generalisations about “the Jews.”  This allows him to dismiss the charge as absurd on its face and proof of the accuser’s bias, when the only one who has made outrageous generalisations and absurd claims has been Goldberg.  But Yglesias has some fun with this:

Look back through this current controversy and you’ll see that I don’t accuse “the Jews” of having a pernicious influence on anything. If you do want to talk about “the Jews” as a class, we’ve had a beneficial impact on US foreign policy lately, voting in overwhelming numbers for congressional Democrats, putting Nancy Pelosi in the Speaker’s Chair and thereby somewhat restraining Bush’s poor national security policies. 

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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