I am not interested in the salacious details of the spat between Paul Berman and Eric Alterman, which Berman made public this week when he wrote that an unnamed intellectual, since identified as Alterman, was blackmailing him with letters of a sexual nature that Berman had written to a third party.
I am interested in the substantive issue that Alterman has effectively raised regarding Berman’s reputation: Berman continues to run away from the fact that he supported the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq (and dragged the estimable George Packer along for the ride), as I and others have pointed out before.
The fight began after a panel at the 92d Street Y on March 27, titled “Jews in Dark Times,” featuring Berman, Leon Wieseltier, and Bernard Henri-Levy, and moderated by Alana Newhouse of Tablet. I watched a video of the entire 70-minute discussion, and the US invasion of Iraq and its contribution to the ongoing violence in the Middle East did not come up once. Alterman was in the audience, and I can hardly blame him for fuming over Berman’s evasiveness and dishonesty. To his credit, Alterman opposed the war from the very beginning (as did I).
Berman’s piece at Tablet exposing the alleged blackmail quotes Alterman on Iraq, several times, from emails Alterman wrote after the panel urging Berman to fess up about the sexual correspondence. First:
“It would also be a good career move. Right now, you are best known to the world for having pimped for George Bush’s disastrous war.”
Later, Berman relates that Alterman
compared me to Norman Podhoretz, the retired editor of Commentary. “I’m sure you know that you already have a lot in common with Podhoretz, who also pimped for right-wing Republican presidents and foolish, destructive wars . . . “
And when Berman didn’t follow Alterman’s suggestion, Alterman continues:
“I find this unfortunate as the world continues to think of you only as the liberal intellectual who whored for Bush’s war.”
Here is what I wrote about this central issue of our time in a review of Paul Berman’s 2010 book, The Flight of the Intellectuals:
Berman snickers at the antiwar demonstrations in the West in early 2003 against the impending invasion of Iraq. But he nowhere admits that he supported the war. He is quick to suggest that certain other writers are cowards. But he does not have enough intellectual courage to either admit he was wrong, or to try and argue that the human and material cost of the war – now in its eighth year – has been worth it.
Alterman’s rage while sitting in the audience at the 92nd Street Y is understandable. Berman continues to portray himself as a modern day truthteller and a pocket-sized Orwell, but he still hides from his responsibility for helping to promote the greatest foreign policy disaster in American history.