Leon Wieseltier's self-published remarks opening a conference of intellectuals that he and the historian Timothy Snyder have assembled in Kiev (the text is in The New Republic, where Wieseltier is literary editor) almost beg for Karl Marx's observation:
Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Here is Wieseltier, presenting himself farcically as just such a world-historic personage:
Last March, as I watched the progress of Putin's imperialism beyond his borders and fascism within his borders, I ruefully remarked to Frank Foer that the moment reminded me of what I used to call my Congress for Cultural Freedom-envy -- my somewhat facile but nonetheless sincere regret at having been born too late to participate in the struggle of Western intellectuals, some of whom became my teachers and my heroes, against the Stalinist assault on democracy in Europe. And all of a sudden, pondering the Russian aggression in Crimea, and the Russian campaign of destabilization in Ukraine, I realized that I had exaggerated my belatedness. I was not born too late at all.
Our time is not lacking for fundamental historical challenges and the obligation to choose sides. Passivity -- even sympathetic passivity -- in the face of a war on freedom is as inadequate now as it was then. So I exclaimed to my friend, 'But this is 1950!' As our predecessors went to Berlin, so we would go to Kiev. We contacted our comrade Timothy Snyder, whose eloquence about Ukraine has been fully the equal of his scholarship, and I proposed this event. Tim kindled instantly to the idea, and, with his extraordinary colleagues in Vienna and Kiev, we made a plan. And here we are.
Not only that, "Here in Kiev, you are not only clarifying yourselves, you are clarifying us." Excuse me, but this sounds a little like: "But enough about me. Let's talk about what you think about me." What a strange way to open a conference -- not with realism, or brave resistance, but with a politics of self-affirmation through moral posturing.
After gifting himself to Ukrainians, Wieseltier announces that "We bring not meals ready to eat but words ready to be heard and ideas ready to be pondered." He then invites his grateful listeners to ponder the peculiar nature of his own dismay "that the United States and its European allies are not inclined now toward a geopolitical struggle that would in any way resemble the Cold War, which many Westerners regard as a dark and cautionary tale. I am not one of those Westerners: Unlike many American liberals, among whom I otherwise count myself, I regard the Cold War as a mottled tale of glory, because it ended in the defeat and the disappearance of the Soviet Union, which was indeed (for American liberals this is a heretical prooftext) what Ronald Reagan said it was -- an evil empire."
Actually, Wieseltier's most heretical statements in the weeks preceding the Kiev congress declared that the United States is as weak as Putin's Russia is evil, owing mainly to the misleadership of Obama. Wieseltier didn't mention George H. W. Bush's 1991 "Chicken Kiev" speech, drafted by his then-assistant for East European affairs (and later George W. Bush's secretary of state) Condoleezza Rice, urging Ukrainians not to seek independence and to avoid the dangers of nationalism.
Nor did Wieseltier mention Jeane Kirkpatrick's famous essay, "Dictatorships and Double Standards," in the neoconservative Commentary magazine, which Reagan loved because it admonished liberals not to obsess about fascistically inclined anti-Communist dictatorships such as those in Argentina or Paraguay or Chile, because they might become democratic relatively soon, unlike Communist nations trapped in the long, dark night of totalitarianism.
Putin is certainly a dictator, and he may be fascistic, as Wieseltier and Snyder have insisted repeatedly in print and at the Kiev congress. But they're not staging any public readings of Kirkpatrick's essay, even though it prompted Reagan to make her his UN ambassador. Instead, Wieseltier may be channeling the frustrations with Obama felt by Wieseltier's good friend and Obama's UN ambassador Samantha Power, whose marriage to Cass Sunstein Wieseltier toasted at voluminous and orotund length in 2008.
Disinclined though I am to acquit Obama of the charge of weaknesses in judgment, I've argued in The Washington Monthly that there are other, more fundamental American weaknesses for which Wieseltier himself bears more than a little responsibility.
His self-described inspiration for his Kiev congress is even more peculiar than his self-presentation. The Congress for Cultural Freedom whose intellectual and political arousals he envied was started in West Berlin in 1950 to counter and discredit pro-Communist intellectual gatherings in New York, but the CCF was soon exposed in the New York Times as a project established and funded significantly by the Central Intelligence Agency.
I will assume that Wieseltier's and "comrade Timothy Snyder's" congress is as immaculate in conception and direction as was the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, on whose advisory board Wieseltier sat in the late 1990s, alongside Dick Cheney and Karl Rove.
I can testify from experience that any independent intellectual will sometimes find himself lauded by people with whom he agrees on almost nothing. George Orwell got publishing offers and other warm feelers from right-wing British publishers when no one else would publish Animal Farm (he turned them down), and he has been celebrated posthumously by the neoconservative warrior Norman Podhoretz.
But working in concert with people whose politics and purposes contravene one repeatedly proclaims are antithetical to one's own is disgusting, and one needn't charge guilt by association to note that for an insistently self-described liberal, Wieseltier works frequently and cozily with vulcan neoconservatives whose follies have weakened America.
Wieseltier's Committee for the Liberation of Iraq was the creation of neoconservative propagandist Bill Kristol, whose father Irving Kristol -- remembered widely as the "godfather of neoconservatism" -- had joined the Congress for Cultural Freedom in 1950 and edited its journal Encounter until the revelations about its CIA provenance made that position untenable for a serious intellectual.
A week after 9/11, Wieseltier joined Irving Kristol and other neo-conservatives and fellow travelers in signing a letter to President Bush, drafted by Bill Kristol on the letterhead of his Project for the New American Century, urging the U.S. to depose Saddam Hussein as a bizarre response to Osama bin Laden's attacks on the United States.
The New Republic has announced that it will publish a steady stream of the Kiev congress' words ready to be heard and ideas ready to be pondered. Some of these words will surely be noble, perhaps indispensable. Ukrainian democrats deserve ardent support and Putin's Russia ardent condemnation and effective opposition.
But, reading Wieseltier's declaration that "As our predecessors went to Berlin, so we would go to Kiev," I can't help wondering if Marx forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce, the third time as "born too late," after all.