Bill Maher, meet Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
Last Friday, the cranky comedian, aided by atheist author Sam Harris, enraged actor Ben Affleck by calling Islam, in Harris’s words, “the mother lode of bad ideas.” Then on Monday, Maher condemned liberals for being so afraid of being called Islamophobes that they won’t denounce brutality committed in Islam’s name. “We’re liberals!” Maher declared about himself and Harris. “We’re liberals … we’re trying to stand up for the principles of liberalism! And so, y’know, I think we’re just saying we need to identify illiberalism wherever we find it in the world, and not forgive it because it comes from [a group that] people perceive as a minority.”
Schlesinger would have been able to relate. In his 1949 manifesto, The Vital Center, the Harvard historian and future Kennedy administration aide attacked what he called “doughface” liberals. Borrowing a term for pre-Civil War northerners who had refused to denounce slavery, Schlesinger deployed it against liberals who refused to denounce Soviet communism. “The infiltration of contemporary progressivism by Communism,” he wrote, “has led to the same self-flagellation [that prevented doughfaces from denouncing slavery], the same refusal to take precautions against tyranny.”
Schlesinger’s point then, and Maher’s now, is that the enemies of liberals do not reside only on the right. In the 1930s and 1940s, some liberals grew so focused on the struggles against fascism and racism—struggles in which communists proved staunch allies—that they refused to acknowledge Joseph Stalin’s crimes. Today, some liberals are so focused on the struggle against American militarism and Islamophobia that they can’t muster much outrage against ISIS. According to Schlesinger, occupying the Vital Center means opposing totalitarianism wherever you find it, regardless of whether it claims the mantle of progressivism, as the Soviet Union did during his time, or anti-imperialism, as jihadists do now.
So far, so good. Where Maher goes wrong is in forgetting two other lessons of the liberal anti-totalitarian tradition. The first is to be precise about what you’re opposing. The second, to not get so carried away with your own virtue that you end up justifying terrible crimes.
Let’s start with the point about precision. At their best, the liberals of the early Cold War trained their fire on Stalin, a particular ruler in a particular country at a particular moment in time. When they began making sweeping generalizations about communism per se—forgetting that communist regimes and movements varied depending on their time and place—they got in trouble. In the 1940s and 1950s, the myth of a monolithic communist movement blinded some liberals to the fact that European socialists and communists—many of whom had their own national loyalties—could prove effective allies against Soviet power. “A recalcitrant Communist Yugoslavia,” in George Kennan’s words, “proved more resistant to Soviet Communist pressures than any non-Communist regime would have been likely to do.”
Even more tragically, in the 1960s, some Cold War liberals could not distinguish between the communism of Joseph Stalin and the communism of Ho Chi Minh. By seeing Ho only as a communist, they overlooked the fact that many Vietnamese saw him primarily as an anti-colonialist. And by pretending that the ideological distinctions between North and South Vietnam resembled the ideological distinctions between East and West Germany, pro-war liberals ignored the reality that in Indochina, America’s allies were no more democratic than its communist foes.
“The tragedy of Vietnam,” wrote Schlesinger in 1967, “is the tragedy of the catastrophic overextension and misapplication of valid principles.” And the engine of that overextension and misapplication was ignorance. Most pro-war liberals simply didn’t know enough about Vietnam to realize that their anti-communism was leading them astray. As Graham Greene wrote of Alden Pyle, the idealistic CIA agent in his novel, The Quiet American, “He was impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance.”
Maher is similarly armored today. It’s one thing to denounce the Saudi monarchy for its fanatical illiberalism. Like Stalin’s dictatorship, it’s a particular regime in a particular place. But to imply that Islamism—and by extension organizations such as Tunisia’s Ennahda Party or Turkey’s AKP, both of which have won democratic elections—are just milder versions of ISIS is dangerously sloppy. As Kennan insisted again and again, national circumstances often play a larger role in determining how cultures and political systems function than do transnational beliefs.
That’s especially true when the ideology isn’t even Islamism but Islam. Maher wants Americans to denounce Islam because while “all religions are stupid, Islam just happens to be the one right now, in this century, that’s most dangerous and violent.” That’s a wild overgeneralization. “Islam” is not violent or peaceful, dangerous or benign. Like every great religion, it includes a vast array of diverse and often contradictory teachings, which different people interpret in different ways in different places and times. Yes, in some Muslim-majority countries, women and religious minorities are treated brutally. But that has far more to do with their particular national circumstances than with the fact that Muslims populate them. After all, other Muslim-majority countries have elected female heads of state. To lump together Indonesia and Yemen because both countries are mostly Muslim makes about as much sense as lumping together Ireland and the Dominican Republic because both countries are mostly Catholic.
The second lesson from the Cold War is that while anti-totalitarianism is important, it can become an excuse for America’s own misdeeds. In 1954, eager to prove their anti-communist bona fides in the face of McCarthyite attacks, liberal stalwarts Hubert Humphrey, Paul Douglas, and John F. Kennedy introduced legislation banning the American Communist Party—thus using America’s crusade against Soviet repression to massively repress free speech here at home. America’s war in Vietnam, justified as a struggle for freedom and human rights, took close to a million lives.
When Affleck told Maher that America has “killed more Muslims than they’ve killed us by an awful lot … and somehow we’re exempt from these things because they’re not really a reflection of what we believe in. We did it by accident,” he was making a crucial point. As the great liberal Cold War theologian Reinhold Niebuhr stressed, nations, like individuals, are often unable to acknowledge the degree to which selfish interest infects their supposed pursuit of high principle. Restraining the evil that lurks within our own culture requires facing our own history of, and ongoing capacity for, terrible crimes. It requires trying to see largely Christian America the way we are seen by the Muslims whose cities we have bombed. By contrast, declaring that the essential barbarism in today’s world lies elsewhere—not even just in a foreign regime or movement but in an entire religion—lets us off easy.
“The pride and self-righteousness of powerful nations,” wrote Niebuhr, “are a greater hazard to their success than the machinations of their foes.” It took the Vietnam War for Schlesinger to truly appreciate that point. Given America’s experience in the Middle East over the last decade, Maher has no excuse.