The Chronicle Review

Breaking Ranks

Lee Pellegrini

Alan Wolfe
September 11, 2011

One day in September 2006, a manifesto arrived in Alan Wolfe's in box. "Radical Islamism," it argued, is "the third major form of totalitarian ideology of the last century, after fascism and Nazism, on the one hand, and Communism, on the other." During both World War II and the cold war, liberal politicians battled dictatorships of the right as well as the left, and antitotalitarian intellectuals stood astride the world of ideas. To defeat Islamic extremism, the statement urged, liberalism must once again become a fighting faith.

The manifesto was sent by one of its authors, Jeffrey Herf, who had reason to think that Wolfe would sign. Both men have ties to The New Republic, where Wolfe is a contributing editor. The manifesto's hawkishness was very much in sync with the magazine's editorial line. Indeed, signatories included the longtime owner of TNR, Martin Peretz; the current editor, Richard Just; and the literary editor, Leon Wieseltier.

"I knew right away that it was an important, serious document," Wolfe recalled a few weeks ago during an interview at his office at Boston College, where he is a professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life. "I also knew that I couldn't sign it." But in an exchange of e-mails with Herf, a professor of modern European history at the University of Maryland at College Park, Wolfe struggled to explain his misgivings. "Jeff's e-mails made me think."

Where that process has led is surprising. In a new book, Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It (Knopf), Wolfe depicts several prominent thinkers, more than a few associated with The New Republic, as being in the grip of a simplistic, nostalgic, and erroneous worldview. Evil is an intellectual problem, Wolfe writes, and too many intellectuals have got it wrong.

Radical Islamism is not a new form of totalitarianism, he argues, and today's terrorists, ethnic cleansers, and génocidaires are not modern-day Hitlers and Stalins. "Intellectuals and policy makers who raise the specter of Munich every time a local tyrant appears on the world stage, or even when terrorists conspire to pull off an act as destructive as the September 11 bombings, are informing us that they are not to be taken seriously," Wolfe writes. "Their use of one of history's most morally clarifying moments is no act of great political courage but serves as a reminder of their lazy unwillingness to make the most basic moral distinctions."

Wolfe isn't pulling punches; he's naming names. Jean Bethke Elshtain, a religious-studies professor at the University of Chicago, and Asa Kasher, an Israeli philosopher, have "lost their analytic edge"; Paul Berman, the writer who has most persuasively linked fascism and Islamism, is a "Whittaker Chambers for the left"; the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy "perfectly captures the descent into narcissism on the hawkish left"; Eric Reeves, a Smith College English professor and activist against genocide, is "arrogant to the point of contempt."

As surprising as whom Wolfe criticizes is whom he praises. In the acknowledgments for Political Evil, he pays tribute to Tony Judt, the late New York University historian who became a lightning rod for suggesting that Israel should convert from a Jewish to a binational state. Wieseltier, Judt's friend and editor, denounced the proposal as "haughty and ugly." Soon after, Judt disappeared from the masthead of The New Republic, where he had been a contributing editor. About Judt's view of the Middle East, Wolfe writes: "I do not agree with all of it, although I do agree with most of it."

Asked to comment on Political Evil, Wieseltier declined. In private, however, he's made his displeasure known in e-mails to Wolfe described by the recipient as "angry, emotional," and "nasty." Wolfe says he is "shocked" by Wieseltier's response. "When friends who knew what I was writing asked how I thought Leon would react, I said that he's going to be a mensch," he says, looking a bit forlorn. "Leon's reaction has not been that."

The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life is located in a brick, residential-style house (complete with doorbell) on the outskirts of the Boston College campus. Wolfe's large office has wood floors, a wood desk, floor-to-ceiling wooden bookshelves, and a private bathroom. On the walls are framed programs from Bill Clinton's 1995 and 1999 State of the Union addresses, to which Wolfe contributed ideas. On the day we meet, he's dressed in a faded black, Hawaiian-style shirt, khaki pants, and white sneakers. He has short, almost buzzed hair, hangdog eyes, and an infectious smile.

Asked about his early years in academe, Wolfe, 69, leans back in his chair and reminisces about the State University of New York College at Old Westbury, where he joined the faculty in 1968. "The place was filled with lefty radicals," he says with a raspy laugh. "I fancied myself a Marxist of some sort. To my shame, I probably even quoted Lenin once or twice."

His heroes were high-profile thinkers like the sociologist David Riesman. "For all I knew, writing for magazines is what academics did," Wolfe says. "It took me years to learn that you're not actually supposed to do that. By then it was too late." (Writing for periodicals has on occasion been a boon to Wolfe's academic career. He landed at Boston College in 1999 after an essay he wrote for The Chronicle caught the eye of J. Robert Barth, one of the Jesuit institution's deans, who lured Wolfe away from Boston University.)

Wolfe submitted his first magazine article in 1967 (to a now-defunct liberal journal, The Reporter) and later joined the editorial board of The Nation. Describing his writing style as too intellectual for Time but too generalist for the American Political Science Review, Wolfe honed his skills as an essayist. (That's not to say that he struggles with books; he's written seven of them just in the past decade. "I don't get writer's block," he says.) His prolific publishing has helped establish his reputation as, in the words of the American Sociological Association, "sociology's premier public intellectual."

By the late 1980s, Wolfe says, he had grown uncomfortable with The Nation's "frivolous, left-wing moralizing." One day in 1989, a package arrived with five books about pornography and a note from Leon Wieseltier asking if he would write a review. Wolfe was delighted. "Finding a home at The New Republic meant a huge amount to me." The center-left magazine seemed a better fit for his evolving views. He became a critic of multiculturalism and a skeptic of affirmative action (he is now a supporter)—positions that caused some to regard him as a neoconservative. "I never did the full monty," insists Wolfe. His journey was from the left wing to the liberal center, he says, a path already beaten by writers like Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan—all of whom stopped short of becoming conservatives.

Throughout the 1990s, Wolfe produced a steady stream of essays on topics like religion, political philosophy, school reform, and race relations. They appeared in the back of The New Republic. In the front of the magazine, a battle was raging for the foreign-policy soul of the Democratic Party. The outbreak of violence in the former Yugoslavia, and the international community's sluggish response, galvanized a hawkish sentiment among The New Republic's writers and editors. As Paul Berman wrote in the mid-90s: "We who used to be the party of anti-intervention (because we were anti-imperialists) should now become, in the case of various dictators and genocidal situations, the party of intervention (because we are democrats)."

At that time, Samantha Power, who now serves on President Obama's National Security Council, was a young reporter in Bosnia, an experience that led to the writing of A Problem From Hell (Basic Books, 2002), her influential, Pulitzer Prize-winning account of America's failure to confront genocide. "The very qualities that made liberals prone to care about evil seemed to make them incapable of coping with it," she wrote in The New Republic years later, reflecting on her time in Bosnia. "Liberals resisted black-and-white characterizations, sought nuance and understanding, and dithered."

When Wolfe first read A Problem From Hell, he thought it "a mind-bogglingly beautifully written, morally compelling book." Today, he regards Power as the "best embodiment of the tradition that I'm breaking with." That liberal-hawk tradition, Wolfe argues, is marked by a dangerous combination of "unvarnished Manichaeism" and misplaced moralism.

In Darfur, he writes in Political Evil, antigenocide activists and writers helped prolong the conflict by depicting it as a clear-cut battle between victims and aggressors. Convinced that Western intervention was imminent, the Sudanese government and the Darfur rebels escalated the violence. "By giving both sides reasons to keep fighting," Wolfe writes, "the antigenocide movement wound up undermining its own humanitarian commitments." When it comes to protecting civilians, he adds, "moral purity is an obstacle."

It's also a distorted lens through which to view the world. "Good and evil are still pretty clear, but it's getting murkier," he says. "Ethnic cleansing is the murkiest of all." Wolfe argues against treating ethnic cleansers like quasi-genocidal, diabolical psychopaths. His evidence? Israel's war of independence in 1948, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forcibly removed from their homes in what became the Jewish state.

Did Israelis engage in ethnic cleansing? "Of course they did," Wolfe writes. Although it was a politically evil act, Israel isn't an evil country. Indeed, for the state's founding leaders, he argues, the expulsion of Arabs was not only a "bitter necessity but a moral obligation," justified in their eyes by the need to create a secure refuge for the Jewish people. That doesn't excuse Israel's actions, Wolfe says, but it does suggest why black-and-white rhetoric should be avoided. "Ethnic hostilities are difficult enough to resolve without making them stand-ins for larger morality plays."

Last year, Wolfe, a secular Jew, traveled to Israel for the first time. "I haven't written much about Israel," he says. "I've felt paralyzed by the moral complexity of the situation." He is paralyzed no more. In what is bound to be among the most controversial sections of Political Evil, Wolfe suggests that, at least in theory, the best outcome to the Israel-Palestine conflict is a single, binational state. On this, his thinking has been shaped in part by Tony Judt.

The two met only once. In 2007, Judt came to deliver a lecture at Boston College. A few years earlier, in a much-discussed essay in The New York Review of Books, Judt argued that the idea of a Jewish state is an anachronism. Wolfe agrees, though he says Judt's use of the word "anachronism" was "incendiary." "Everything in the world today pushes toward globalization and multiculturalism," Wolfe says. "So Israel, which I want to see survive, has no choice but to move in a very different direction."

It is unclear where exactly Wolfe thinks that different direction should lead. "One state is the ideal, but under the present circumstances it isn't possible," he tells me. Pressed for details, Wolfe shrugs. "I'm almost tongue-tied trying to explain that there is a moral justification for a Jewish state in the Middle East," he says, eyebrows arched, eyes widened. "Does Israel take Palestinian land? Yes, it does. Does the situation resemble ethnic cleansing? Yes, it does. But you can't deny that the Jews were entitled to a state in the wake of the Holocaust." He's almost out of breath. "But then what about the Palestinians?" He throws his hands up. "It's endless."

Asked if he feels trepidation about wading into such a contentious debate, Wolfe says simply, "This is what intellectuals do." Another thing intellectuals do is break ranks, make enemies, and alienate friends. Spend some time with Wolfe, and you get the sense that he's still trying to sort out where he stands. For now, he hopes to remain at The New Republic. "I don't feel homeless yet, but it's all up in the air."