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Sleazy spat revives Paul Berman’s role as ‘liberal intellectual who whored for Bush’s war’

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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.

James North

James North is a Mondoweiss Editor-at-Large, and has reported from Africa, Latin America, and Asia for four decades. He lives in New York City.

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14 Responses

  1. annie on May 13, 2017, 8:25 pm

    Berman made public this week when he wrote that an unnamed intellectual, since identified as Alterman

    since identified by whom? how? where? when? very curious.

    • annie on May 14, 2017, 7:45 am


    • Mooser on May 14, 2017, 3:07 pm

      “Through a Jewish lens” the Forward calls it. I guess the “darkly” is implied or something.

      • annie on May 14, 2017, 3:31 pm

        it’s such a weird story. and this:

        Alterman said. “They arose from a deeply personal matter between us. Paul omits all the relevant details because they reflect so poorly on his character.”

        Alterman and Berman have known each other for decades, and shared similar politics until the early 2000s.

        it’s a gossip story. but they don’t mention what the split was. too much information i suppose. i am not that interested in the spat or the story but if i am going to read it, like all good gossip, then of course I am interested in the “salacious details”. it’s seems like such a bizarre incident to begin with, for alterman to approach him at a public event, and then even moreso for berman to write about it! and then i saw blumenthal’s tweet (he called it a “sad blackmail drama”) and RT of dan cohen’s 2014 tweet about alterman following “nude celebrity” twitter accounts. it’s like, what the hell happened between these two? so far, i have not encountered the public value in either of them, nor these 92d Street Y panels that seemingly elevates certain characters. but if everyone’s dirt is going to be on display then just spit it out already. it’s like 2 grown men acting like 2nd graders. it reminds me of my son and his friends farting phase. ridiculous. and so many people supported that hideous war, so what’s special about berman’s support for it? just another neoliberal.

        and i’d never even heard of berman until now. they are both sleaze bags and should kiss and make up.

      • gamal on May 14, 2017, 4:24 pm

        “I am interested in the “salacious details” ” Annie

        “Berman continues to portray himself as a modern day truthteller ” Weiss

        But what fear does a “modern day truthteller” have of peccadilloes, i mean i hope its not petty shit, take a leaf out of the Bukowski Muslims note book, just remember to emphasise how much you enjoyed your “perverse degradation”, always works for me, i am observant and never spare a detail till at least one of my listeners is retching,

        whoring for George Bush you just going after a narrow demographic , you see the corruption spreads..(nearly got out of hand) i hope there is a happy ending..i can’t help it.

      • gamal on May 14, 2017, 5:39 pm

        “perverse degradation”

        i realise that with full knowledge and aforethought I have violated the norms of scholastic intercourse, i was not owed those quotation marks, i just took them, it was good, and the perverse degradation is mine it appeared in no one else’s remarks, i am the only one who touched on it , this full frontal disclosure leaves me prostrate but satisfied, don’t worry it will be just as hard tomorrow as it was today.

      • gamal on May 14, 2017, 8:59 pm

        “they don’t mention”

        Dear Annie,

        you know as you play in high rank, darling, stay away this, when you feel the rhythm you got to stick with him, when a lion is sleeping, a lion could paw you down one time …do it to me…king tubby skank..i gonna take out my yard broom…(deep thing) stay away i beg you.

  2. RoHa on May 13, 2017, 11:40 pm

    “Paul Berman and Eric Alterman”


  3. pabelmont on May 14, 2017, 10:28 am

    RoHa (speaking chiefly of Paul Berman, I suppose) says “Who?”

    I would say so too, exposing either my ignorance about a couple of (self- ?) important people or my lack of membership in some club I’d not want to belong to. Read Paul Berman? Heck, I don’t even turn on NPR anymore, or not much. (Alterman sometimes has good things to say.)

    Actually, I’m retired. If I had to earn a living again, I might wish to pretend to be an important public intellectual, even adopting the preening pose of a self-important public intellectual. As matters stand I don’t even have to pretend to be an intellectual at all. ¡ Gracias a dios!

    But I can complain about war-mongers and other fanatics of religions such as “making the world safe for democracy”, “white man’s burden”, “bringing the heathens/barbarians/natives to the wonders of civilization”. See my essay: .

  4. wondering jew on May 14, 2017, 12:07 pm

    I read paul berman’s “terror and liberalism” in 2003 and i was impressed. The war against islamism has been used and abused in various conflicts since 2003, and indeed the war against Iraq was in all probability a bad mistake, but it was important for berman to make the case against Islamic fundamentalism. In retrospect the danger is now clearer and definable in a way that it was not in 2003 to a bystander like me.
    The players: the states of longstanding with their coercive leadership and their relationships with world powers. 2. the Muslim brotherhood, a relatively gradualist realistic force compared to al qaeda and isis, and 3. The radical forces. And 4. Iran- a wild card.
    Other relevant factors: the refugee crisis, the friction between Israel and the Palestinians, and sporadic attacks on western turf.
    At the time of berman in 2003 the picture was not so detailed. Those who were near the counsels of power and provided the rationale for the Cheney Bush decision to go to war, should answer for their abetting a war that looks quite stupid arrogant and unpredictably destructive in many ways.

    • Mooser on May 14, 2017, 12:43 pm

      Shorter “yonah”: ‘Don’t blame Israel, don’t blame Zionism! That had nothing to do with it!’

      And whatever you do, don’t blame the Jews! We don’t even live in the area.

    • Froggy on May 14, 2017, 1:35 pm

      Yonah :: … the friction between Israel and the Palestinians…

      ‘Friction’ ? That’s like calling the holocaust ‘a minor point in the history of the Second World War’. (Jean-Marie Le Pen)

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