Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Reading: Dolchstosslegende

"Although American political life has rarely been touched by the most acute varieties of class conflict," wrote Richard Hoftstadter in the opening pages of The Paranoid Style, "it has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds."

It is a truth universally acknowledged among right wing pundits that the American left--Democrats, liberals, progressives, and (oh this above all) left-of-center bloggers--are "angry." It's a standard talking point of the right, trotted out most recently, as my DD notes, by the dwindling cadre of Lieberman supporters to explain why he's fighting for his political life in a primary--a primary! Connecticut hasn't had a Democratic primary in 36 years, for pity's sake!

But forget about the left; it's the American right that's been the home of the uber-myth of political anger, resentment, and paranoia: dolchstosslegende--more literally, "dagger-thrust legend," but more familiar to Americans as "stab-in-the-back theory." The stab-in-the-back theory posits that "we" could not possibly have failed because "our" enemies were more powerful, or because "our" leaders were incompetent, or "our" cause not just, but only because of betrayal from within.

Dolchstosslegende was born in German nationalists' need to explain their loss in World War I, but its adopted home since the end of World War II has been American conservatism.

Harper's has done us a valuable, if grisly, service by reprinting Kevin Baker's history of the stab-in-the-back theory in post-WWII American conservatism:
Since the end of World War II it has been the device by which the American right wing has both revitalized itself and repeatedly avoided responsibility for its own worst blunders. Indeed, the right has distilled its tale of betrayal into a formula: Advocate some momentarily popular but reckless policy. Deny culpability when that policy is exposed as disastrous. Blame the disaster on internal enemies who hate America. Repeat, always making sure to increase the number of internal enemies.
Beginning as they meant to proceed, conservative Republicans looked to backstabbing as the explanation for their own political irrelevance at the end of America's greatest success to that point, the second World War.
The dolchstosslegende first came to the United States following not a war that had been lost but our own greatest triumph. Here, the motivating defeat was suffered not by the nation but by a faction. In the years immediately following World War II, the American right was facing oblivion. Domestically, the reforms of the New Deal had been largely embraced by the American people. The Roosevelt and Truman administrations—supported by many liberal Republicans—had led the nation successfully through the worst war in human history, and we had emerged as the most powerful nation on earth.

Franklin Roosevelt and his fellow liberal internationalists had sounded the first alarms about Hitler, but conservatives had stubbornly—even suicidally—maintained their isolationism right into the postwar era. Senator Robert Taft, “Mr. Republican,” and the right’s enduring presidential hope, had not only been a prominent member of the leading isolationist organization, America First, and opposed the nation’s first peacetime draft in 1940, but also appeared to be as naive about the Soviet Union as he had been about the Axis powers. Like many on the right, he was much more concerned about Chiang Kai-shek’s worm-eaten Nationalist regime in China than U.S. allies in Europe. “The whole Atlantic Pact, certainly the arming of Germany, is an incentive for Russia to enter the war before the army is built up,” Taft warned. He was against any U.S. military presence in Europe even in 1951.

This sort of determined naiveté had Taft and his movement teetering on the brink of political irrelevance. They saved themselves by grabbing at an unlikely rope—America’s very own dolchstosslegende, the myth of Yalta. No reasonable observer would have predicted in the immediate wake of the Yalta conference that it would become an enduring symbol of Democratic perfidy.
And so on, to the present day--actually, Baker's accounting stops just short of the most recent example, the claim by the most rabid factions of the right that the New York Times, by reporting that the US government was monitoring international financial transactions as part of its "War on Terror," had given aid and comfort to our enemies--even though the Bush administration itself had revealed the basic information some time ago.

Some of that "treason" talk, of course, is simply working the refs. And yet, of all the ways to cow the opposition and the soi-disant independent media, how quickly, how effortlessly--how naturally--they reach for the "betrayal from within" cudgel.

"Stab in the Back!" is going on the Reading list.

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