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Walt & Mearsheimer & Franzen

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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.

Peter Voskamp

Peter Voskamp is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.

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