Walt & Mearsheimer & Franzen

I finally got around to reading Jonathan Franzen’s much-heralded novel, “Freedom.” At nearly 600 pages, it kept me engaged enough to finish, but I wonder what my impressions would have been had there not been so much hype surrounding the book. 

Be that as it may, I was taken aback by how overtly Franzen pointed to neocon Jewish influence in Washington as a cause for the Iraq war. I found it especially surprising that in all the glowing reviews I’d read about the novel I’d seen nary a mention of that, pro or con. 

In the novel, the character Joey Berglund, a UVA college freshman, attends a Thanksgiving dinner — the first after 9-11 — outside Washington at the home of his wealthy Jewish roommate. At dinner, the roommate’s father — presumably a very formidable, connected figure within the Beltway — holds forth on the opportunity the 9-11 attacks had presented: 

“He referred to members of the president’s cabinet by their first names, explaining how ‘we’ had been ‘leaning on’ the president to exploit this unique historical moment to resolve an intractable geopolitical deadlock and radically expand the sphere of freedom. In normal times, he said, the great mass of American public opinion was isolationist and know-nothing, but the terrorist attacks had given ‘us’ a golden opportunity, the first since the end of the Cold War, for ‘the philosopher’ (which philosopher, exactly, Joey wasn’t clear on or had missed an earlier reference to) to step in and unite the country behind the mission that his philosophy had revealed as right and necessary.” 

I backtracked and found that indeed this scene had generated discussion. 

Back in September M.J. Rosenberg argued that the fact that such a claim could be made in such a ballyhooed novel was proof that Walt and Mearsheimer’s thesis had been accepted by the mainstream. 

But others were far less comfortable with the Franzen’s take.

In Tablet, Marc Tracy, himself a child of the Beltway, said Franzen’s rendering did not ring true. Tracy said his “quibble” had less to do with his “jewishness” than with Franzen’s otherwise sharp eye falling laughably short when it came to understanding how D.C. works. 

Perhaps the strongest reaction came from Adam Kirsch in The New Republic. He identified the “philosopher” mentioned by Franzen as Leo Strauss, the patron saint of neoconservatism. Kirsch excoriates Franzen for repeating left-wing talking points regarding the Iraq war, and for falling for other old canards:

What’s important is that, in fictionalizing this left-wing conventional wisdom about Strauss, the Jews, and the Iraq war, Franzen is spreading it to a much wider audience—complete with images of a wizened, cranially distorted Jewish puppetmaster, who cynically chuckles about how “we” control the U.S. government from behind the scenes. That Franzen could uncritically reproduce this kind of imagery is a reminder of how ugly and obsessive the antiwar discourse sometimes became.

To be sure, Franzen also smites scruple-less war profiteers (of indeterminate religious background) for their sins in Iraq, and wonders from time to time about just what Bush and Cheney’s motivation really was. But he never gives them a Thanksgiving dinner to lay out their reasons.

About Peter Voskamp

Peter Voskamp is a freelance writer based in Washington DC. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone.com, Texas Monthly.com, the Providence Phoenix, TheWrap and Yankee magazine, among other publications. He also served as editor of the Block Island Times for many years, in between playing drums for the Booze Beggars and chairing the shellfish commission.
Posted in Israel/Palestine

{ 16 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. Bumblebye says:

    Someone should point out to Kirsch that the Yahoo isn’t either “wizened” or (afaik) cranially distorted, and he’s said as much about controlling US govt.

    Meanwhile, I read the other day that the Pentagon cannot account for any of $6.3bn meant for Iraq reconstruction, despite an investigation. How, why and where can that much money disappear into space with no accountability?

    • Les says:

      And Congress could care less about missing $6.3 billion in spite of all the talk about eliminating Medicare and Social Security to pay for the deficit caused by wars which the US has been unable to afford for years and years and years with China loanding just enough money to strangle ourselves at the behest of the crudest of our capitalist and their Democratic and Republican minions in Congress, the White House, and the courts.

  2. Citizen says:

    Here’s the whole scene in the book, from Marc Tracy’s review in the Tablet:

    Jonathan and Jenna’s father, at the far end of the table, was holding forth on foreign affairs at such commanding length that, little by little, the other conversations petered out. The turkey-like cords in his neck were more noticeable in the flesh than on TV, and it turned out to be the almost shrunken smallness of his skull that made his white, white smile so prominent. The fact that such a wizened person had sired the amazing Jenna seemed to Joey of a piece with his eminence. He spoke of the “new blood libel” that was circulating in the Arab world, the lie about there having been no Jews in the twin towers on 9/11, and of the need, in times of national emergency, to counter evil lies with benevolent half-truths. He spoke of Plato as if he’d personally received enlightenment at his Athenian feet. He referred to members of the president’s cabinet by their first names, explaining how “we” had been “leaning on” the president to exploit this unique historical moment to resolve an intractable geopolitical deadlock and radically expand the sphere of freedom. In normal times, he said, the great mass of American public opinion was isolationist and know-nothing, but the terrorist attacks had given “us” a golden opportunity, the first since the end of the Cold War, for “the philosopher” (which philosopher, exactly, Joey wasn’t clear on or had missed an earlier reference to) to step in and unite the country behind the mission that his philosophy had revealed as right and necessary. “We have to learn to be comfortable with stretching some facts,” he said, with his smile, to an uncle who had mildly challenged him about Iraq’s nuclear capabilities. “Our modern media are very blurry shadows on the wall, and the philosopher has to be prepared to manipulate these shadows in the service of a greater truth.”
    Tracy, in his self-described review of the book as a Jewish Blogger, praises the 600 page book except for this one scene. He says that’s because the author failed to render an accounting of the neocons in the scene that reflects they were warm, decent human beings, except for Chaney, and also because the scene reflect’s the author’s ignorance of how political sausage is made in DC.

    See link to tabletmag.com

  3. Citizen says:

    At the start of his review, Kirsch says he hadn’t read all the way though the book–here’s a comment on that under his article:

    09/23/2010 – 9:06am EDT | sokol8
    What is deeply unfair is that Adam Kirsch has not only “not yet read through” Freedom, but apparently hasn’t read much either before or after his quoted passages. If he had read, he’d see that the ‘puppet master’ and ‘cranially distorted’ father has an ethical jewish son who is a journalist and criticizes the Iraq war. He also has a beautiful jewish daughter at Duke (by the way, if having a beautiful daughter means that it’s an antisemitic reference to a Merchant in Venice [referring to another commenter who made the analogy], then is it fair to say that if the daughter were instead ugly and ‘cranially distorted’ that Kirsch would be supportive because now it would be ‘pro-Jewish’, or would this tautologically mean that it’s still antisemitic?). Finally, Joey, the character who represents “America” by Kirsch’s reading, is also ethnically Jewish, thus putting his thesis that jews are somehow represented as ‘other’ in this novel in something of a bind.
    I know Yom Kippur has already ended, but maybe some self reflection is in order. Franzen’s novel captures the U.S. in a snapshot, with different threads of thought, and perhaps Kirsch should accept that, rather than attack a book he hasn’t read. It is fair for Franzen to point out the neoconservative “ends justify the means” approach, which is not only evident in the benevolent lies they supported, but also in their support of torture.

  4. marc b. says:

    i bought a used copy of ‘the corrections’ but haven’t finished it. clever portraits of characters that i couldn’t give a sh#t about is how i would describe the first couple hundred pages. this controversy has sparked my interest though.

  5. Citizen says:

    Here’s some relevant excerpts from Joshua Furst’s review of the book:

    That’s a lot of Jews for a book set mostly in the blond, blue eyed Midwest and written by a goy.  And though comparatively little is explicitly made of this fact throughout the course of the story, the political and cultural station of all these Jews is central to Franzen’s analysis of the state of our nation and its discontents.
    One has to ask, though, if religion is irrelevant to these people’s lives, why does Franzen spend so many pages exploring the traces of Judaism in their pasts?
    Much has been made of the scene midway through Freedom where Patty’s son Joey, himself rebelling by embracing the Bush era conservative ethos, spends Thanksgiving dinner with the neo-con family of his roommate.  Here the paterfamilias gives a long disquisition, over the turkey, laying out all the tried and true justifications for the Iraq war and neatly tying them up in a Zionist package.  People have questioned the believability of such direct and pedantic conversations taking place at the dinner table, they’ve questioned the veracity of characters with such an obsessive interest in their own Jewishness, its role and meaning in the political realm.  I had no trouble believing this scene—the tangled blood knot between American imperialism and extreme Zionism is well documented and undeniable, and in my experience at least, when Jews gather together, they banter about, revel in, mock, and constantly reference the cultural heritage that sets them apart from the Christian majority.  What struck me about this scene was how it contrasted with shrugging lack of interest the other characters take in their own Judaism.
    And I can’t but think that this is a purposeful choice on Franzen’s part.  The plot of the story—much like the events of recent history—unambiguously discredits the belief system of the neo-cons and their racketeering business partners.  Joey surges out of this Thanksgiving dinner as a true believer in the twin causes of American capital war making and their ability to force liberty on the less fortunate parts of the globe.  He goes into business selling junk truck parts, so rusty that they’re essentially useless, to a US Army in desperate need material support.
    By these lights, it appears that Franzen is trying to say something about Judaism after all, about the ways it does and doesn’t contribute to the political and ethical siege our country has been undergoing for the past ten years.  Or maybe—more likely—he’s recognized the roles Jews and Jewish thought have played in the intellectual and political history of America, and with due diligence, he’s weaving this history into his story.
    link to mischiefandmayhembooks.com

  6. RE: “the terrorist attacks had given ‘us’ a golden opportunity…for ‘the philosopher’…to step in and unite the country behind the mission that his philosophy had revealed as right and necessary.” – the formidable, connected figure within the Beltway (kitchen cabinet type?), per Berglund

    MY GUESS: “The philosopher(s)” in the context it was being used by this “formidable, connected figure within the Beltway” in the period following 9-11 was/were actually the members of the Neocon ‘inner circle’ (including Cheney). As best I can glean, Strauss also referred to the “philosophers” (not to be confused with most self-described philosophers) as the “great thinkers” (who boldly and creatively address big problems).
    If Strauss is to be taken at his own word, he was merely a “scholar” (like most self-described philosophers) who was/were “cautious and methodical”.
    George W. Bush was the glad-handing, cheerleading, propaganda-catapulting, fratboy-salesman-functionary needed to execute the bold, creative solutions to the big problems as formulated/devised by the Neocon “great thinkers”/philosophers.
    Of course, Bush was allowed/encouraged to believe he was the “decider”, “commander guy”, scholar, self-described philosopher, Grand Poobah, and/or whatever else – but not a “great thinker”).
    DISCLAIMER: I am not very knowledgeable as to Strauss, the “Neocons” and /or “(political) Philosophy”. I would love to hear what more knowledgeable people think about this.

    WIKIPEDIA (excerpts):

    …For Strauss, politics and philosophy were necessarily intertwined. He regarded the trial and death of Socrates as the moment when political philosophy came into existence. Strauss considered one of the most important moments in the history of philosophy Socrates’ argument that philosophers could not study nature without considering their own human nature, which, in the words of Aristotle, is that of “a political animal.”[2]
    Strauss distinguished “scholars” from “great thinkers”, identifying himself as a scholar. He wrote that most self-described philosophers are in actuality scholars, cautious and methodical. Great thinkers, in contrast, boldly and creatively address big problems. Scholars deal with these problems only indirectly by reasoning about the great thinkers’ differences.[3]
    In Natural Right and History Strauss begins with a critique of Max Weber’s epistemology…
    …Much of his philosophy is a reaction to the works of Heidegger. Indeed, Strauss wrote that Heidegger’s thinking must be understood and confronted before any complete formulation of modern political theory is possible.
    Strauss wrote that Friedrich Nietzsche was the first philosopher to properly understand relativism, an idea grounded in a general acceptance of Hegelian historicism. Heidegger, in Strauss’ view, sanitized and politicized Nietzsche, whereas Nietzsche believed “our own principles, including the belief in progress, will become as relative as all earlier principles had shown themselves to be” and “the only way out seems to be…that one voluntarily choose life-giving delusion instead of deadly truth, that one fabricate a myth“.[4] Heidegger believed that the tragic nihilism of Nietzsche was a “myth” guided by a defective Western conception of Being that Heidegger traced to Plato. In his published correspondence with Alexandre Kojève, Strauss wrote that Hegel was correct when he postulated that an end of history implies an end to philosophy as understood by classical political philosophy.
    In 1952 Strauss published Persecution and the Art of Writing, commonly understood to advance the argument that some philosophers write esoterically in order to avoid persecution by political or religious authorities. A few readers of Strauss suggest esoteric writing may also seek to protect politics from political philosophy – the explosive reasoning of which might well shatter fragile opinions undergirding the political order…Strauss proposed that an esoteric text was the proper type for philosophic learning. Rather than simply outlining the philosopher’s thoughts, the esoteric text forces readers to do their own thinking and learning…
    …Ultimately, Strauss believed that philosophers offered both an “exoteric” or salutary teaching and an “esoteric” or true teaching, which was concealed from the general reader. For maintaining this distinction, Strauss is often accused of having written esoterically himself. Moreover he also emphasized that writers often left contradictions and other excuses to encourage the more careful examination of the writing. Leo Strauss’s favorite novelist was Jane Austen.*[5]

    SOURCE -http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Strauss
    * RECALL: Daniel Pipes’ peculiar obsession with “Jane Austen’s England” – link to mondoweiss.net

    • Citizen says:

      RE: “…Ultimately, Strauss believed that philosophers offered both an “exoteric” or salutary teaching and an “esoteric” or true teaching, which was concealed from the general reader. ”

      If my antique memory serves, Nietzsche’s images of the “blonde beast” in a nasty world without God etc were used by the Nazis; but they
      ignored Nietzsche’s, e.g., his clear, much more literal devasting critique of
      Germany, German culture of his day. a culture that had only grown worse after the turn of the century which saw “Gott Mit Uns” on every soldier’s belt buckle.

      • Citizen says:

        It’s interesting to revisit Nietzsche and his influence; his ideas are clearly
        still around–check out Wikipedia to get a quick refresher. Here’s something from there I never knew, although I once studied Nietzsche a lot:

        Nietzsche had a distinct appeal for many Zionist thinkers at the turn of the century. It has been argued that his work influenced Theodore Herzl,[86] and Martin Buber went so far as to extoll Nietzsche as a “creator” and “emissary of life”.[87] Israel Eldad, the ideological chief of the Stern Group that fought the British in Palestine in the 1940s, wrote about Nietzsche in his underground newspaper and later translated most of Nietzsche’s books into Hebrew.[88]


      Recent Essays – by Shadia Drury, link to phil.uregina.caon Leo Strauss and the Neoconservatives
      Which Fukuyama?link to opendemocracy.net
      “The making of a Straussian”link to phil.uregina.ca
      “Noble Lies and Perpetual War”link to opendemocracy.net
      “Saving America”link to evatt.labor.net.au
      • Film: “Hijacking Catastrophe”link to youtube.com

      Selected Articles by Shadia Drury
      • Gurus of the Right
      Shadia Drury examines Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein from the Literary Review of Canada
      link to phil.uregina.ca
      • “Leo Strauss”
      From Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy
      link to phil.uregina.ca
      • “Alexandre Kojève”
      From A Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory
      link to phil.uregina.ca
      • Reply to my Critics
      From The Vital Nexus
      link to mediaed.org

    • P.S. More articles on Leo Strauss, neo-conservatism, etc.
      Reference – link to opendemocracy.net

      • M.F. Burnyeat, “Sphinx without a Secret”, New York Review of Books, 30 May 1985 [paid-for only]
      link to nybooks.com
      • Stephen Holmes, “Truths for Philosophers Alone?”, Times Literary Supplement, 1-7 December 1989; reprinted in Stephen Holmes, The Anatomy of Antiliberalism (1996)
      [NO LONGER APPEARS TO BE AVAILABLE] link to semcoop.com
      • Robert B. Pippin, “The Modern World of Leo Strauss,” Political Theory Vol. 20 No. 3 (August 1992) [affiliate only]
      link to query.nytimes.com
      • Gregory Bruce Smith, “Leo Strauss and the Straussians: An Anti-democratic Cult?”, PS: Political Science & Politics Vol. 30 No. 2 (June 1997) [affiliate only]
      link to links.jstor.org
      • Michiko Kakutani, “How Books Have Shaped U.S. Policy,” The New York Times, 5 April 2003
      link to query.nytimes.com
      • Alain Frachon and Daniel Vernet, “The Strategist and the Philosopher”, Le Monde, 15 April 2003
      link to counterpunch.org
      • James Atlas, “A Classicist’s Legacy: New Empire Builders,” The New York Times, 4 May 2003
      link to query.nytimes.com
      • Jeet Heer, “The Philosopher,” The Boston Globe, 11 May 2003
      link to boston.com
      • Jim Lobe, “Strong Must Rule the Weak, said Neo-Cons’ Muse,” IPS/information Clearinghouse, 8 May 2003
      link to informationclearinghouse.info
      • Seymour Hersh, “Selective Intelligence,” The New Yorker, 12 May 2003
      link to newyorker.com
      • William Pfaff, “The long reach of Leo Strauss”, International Herald Tribune, 15 May 2003
      link to commondreams.org
      • Peter Berkowitz, “What Hath Strauss Wrought?”, Weekly Standard, 2 June 2003
      link to weeklystandard.com
      • “Philosophers and kings,” The Economist, 19 June 2003
      link to economist.com
      • Steven Lenzner & William Kristol, “What was Leo Strauss up to?”, National Affairs, Issue No. 153 – Fall 2003
      link to nationalaffairs.com
      • Laura Rozen “Con Tract: the theory behind neocon self-deception”, Washington Monthly, October 2003
      link to washingtonmonthly.com
      • Tom Barry, “Leo Strauss and Intelligence Strategy”, Right Web, February 11, 2004
      link to rightweb.irc-online.org

    • P.P.S. FROM THE NYT, 04/05/03:

      …Newsweek also reported that after 9/11 Mr. Cheney spent much of his time in an undisclosed location reading books about weapons of mass destruction and consulting with scholars about the Middle East. Among them was Bernard Lewis, the Princeton historian who wrote the best-selling ”What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response” and was a participant in a pre-Sept. 11 study of ancient empires, sponsored by Mr. Rumsfeld’s office, to understand how they maintained their dominance.
      Mr. Lewis reportedly told Mr. Cheney that the Arab world looked down on weakness and respected the exercise of force. After talks with him and other Middle East experts like the Johns Hopkins scholar Fouad Ajami, Time reported, Mr. Cheney ”gradually abandoned his former skepticism about the potential for democracy in the Middle East,” a development that became a tipping point in the tilt toward war…
      SOURCE – link to nytimes.com

  7. ToivoS says:

    Adam Kirtch whines:

    That Franzen could uncritically reproduce this kind of imagery is a reminder of how ugly and obsessive the antiwar discourse sometimes became.

    Yes indeed. You advocated and manipulated the US to engage in an ugly criminal war against the people of Iraq. And after this crime, what is the complaint? — the discussion became ugly and obsessive.

    Once we bring some of the criminals that started this war to justice for their war crimes, then we can return to civil discourse. However, in the meantime you guys will be treated with the contempt that you deserve.

  8. GuiltyFeat says:

    Freedom is better than The Corrections and probably the best thing I’ve read in the past five years. Highly recommended.

    • Citizen says:

      I just got it from the library; am only up to page 16 (of 662). I’m hoping this thread stays active for awhile. I will keep subscribing to it to see
      what other’s who read the book have to say, and I will add my own two cents.