I think that over the last few years, the view has quite frequently been expressed in comments on CT and other blogs that it is rather a shame that Christopher Hitchens has suffered something of a decline in his talents as a writer even as the general direction of his politics has coarsened and moved rightwards. How we wish, a significant proportion of the readership lament, that there was somebody around writing exhilarating and scabrous left-wing polemics with a contrarian twist!
Check out “Savage Mules” by Dennis Perrin, guys, you’ll like it.
Savage Mules is a cracking read – I’m only half way through it, but for reasons I’ll get onto in a minute, I thought it made sense to post the review early. As the title suggests, it’s a book about the Democratic Party of the USA, and about their long history of violence, imperialism, authoritarianism and craven surrender to the worst excesses of American right-capitalism. As such, in the current media environment (which seems to be dominated by a suffocating mix of unquestioning idolatry from the left and half-baked smears from the right), it’s a tonic. Yes indeed, there do exist people in America who are prepared to criticise the Democrats from the Left!
And what a criticism. Reading “Savage Mules”, you realise what a sorry job Jonah Goldberg made of “Liberal Fascism”. From the Trail of Tears to the internment of Japanese-Americans to , if you actually want to stitch the Democratic Party up as a gang of authoritarians, nuts and genocidaires, there’s more than enough material available in the historic record for you to do so. The only thing is, that if you’re going to stitch the Democrats this way, it makes no sense to pretend that they’re socialists too.
In fact, (and this is pretty much a commonplace to everyone who doesn’t live in America), the Democratic Party are a right-wing capitalist party which is broadly favourable to the military-industrial state, and as a result, when they act like one. As Adolph Reed notes (via Dennis’ blog, and in an article that looks like it’s one to print out and reread every time Obama gives a stirring set-piece speech, to re-establish bearings), there’s something a bit dumb about being repeatedly “shocked” by Democratic moves to the right (most recently, that wiretapping thing); they happen so frequently and systematically that they can’t be explained away as “pragmatism” or “compromise”; the Dem leadership does these things because they want to.
Why is this? I think at base, Dennis’ real explanation is a structural one; in the rare “but seriously folks” moments in Savage Mules (which mainly concentrates on Democratic adventurism in foreign policy rather than domestic politics), he always seems to be moving in the direction of something not far off Marx’s analysis of imperialism and the view that the Democrats are simply, like the Republicans, an arm of the American ruling class. However, this isn’t really set out in detail (or at least, not in the first half of the book), and other chapters also deal with the “not wanting to look like a wimp” theory, the “scared of being redbaited” theory and the currently still fashionable “arrogant and unrealistic assessment of humanitarian benefits” theory – he’s particularly caustic, as is Reed, on the tendency of grad-school humanitarians like to play “let’s you and him fight” on a global scale and on the serried ranks of old farts who are always hanging round explaining that while the war that they opposed in their youth was a hideous exercise in imperial brutality, the current war being pursued now that they’ve passed draft age is a high-minded humanitarian crusade. He’s also caustic about nearly everything else.
It’s not a perfect book, it has to be said – the key strength of it is that it’s wildly, hilariously unfair to its targets and at times (particularly when Dennis deals with the way in which FDR boondoggled the US into World War 2), this slips into glibness; he also, in order to shoehorn JFK into an overall narrative of bloodthirsty Dems, takes a pretty slanted view of the historical evidence on the direction which Vietnam policy was going in 1963. And the habit of, a la Nick Cohen, always assuming the very worst motives indeed on the part of his opponents, and tarring whole groups of well-meaning people with the motives of the nastiest tendencies that can be tangentially associated with them, is the sort of thing that would get irksome in a longer book.
On the other hand, I find it a lot easier to forgive this meanspiritedness in “Savage Mules” than in the literary output of the Decent Left. Why? Well for one thing, and it’s pointless to deny it, I am like everyone else in finding it a lot funnier when someone’s having a go at my enemies than at me and my friends. But for another, there’s an underlying honesty there that has to be respected. There’s no hidden agenda behind his excoriation of the Democratic Party; he just hates them and wishes that they didn’t peel off so much strength from the only marginally existent American left (compare this to a book like “What’s Left?”, where the author spends hundreds of pages pretending, ludicrously, that his phillipics are only tangentially related to the Iraq War). The point of view expressed is also such a marginal and unpopular one (as opposed to the official policy of a major government) that it ought to be cut more slack in the tactics used. And finally, there’s not a hint of careerism here.
My God, there certainly isn’t a hint of careerism here. A funny and eloquent writer capable of doing good foreign policy analysis from the left of the Democratic Party might certainly realistically aspire to carving out a decently if not terrifically remunerated niche somewhere around the third floor of the “netroots” movement. So Dennis devotes an entire extended chapter to burning all his bridges there with a Hunter S Thompsonesque rant about YearlyKos (I sneaked a peek at this one; the general theme is that the Kossacks are still full of it because they haven’t given up on the Democrats). So no consulting gig there.
Which brings me to the reason for posting this review ahead of finishing the book. It’s published by Verso, a publishing house which has many virtues, but which (shall we say) doesn’t have much of a track record of making rich men out of its authors. More to the point, books published by Verso have an irritating tendency toward short print runs and quick deletions and given that it is to a great extent an election-year book, “Savage Mules” is likely to be even more vulnerable to this Jack Kevorkian deletion policy than, say, Wall Street. So buy a copy now. In fact, it might make sense to buy two copies, as I rather suspect that this book would make a perfect present for any stroppy or rebellious teenagers of your acquaintance, given that it’s full of the sort of fascinating and embarrassing facts about the political history of the USA over the last hundred years that would be more or less guaranteed to light a firework in any high school civics class.
Full disclosure: Dennis and I used to be members of a popular mailing list about five years ago and I think it’s fair to say that we didn’t get on (this exchange is pretty typical). But a lot of water’s gone under the bridge since then and I like his blog. That’s it basically.