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Peter Berkowitz v. Alan Wolfe, part 3

Alan Wolfe accuses me of intellectual dishonesty in the service of contemporary conservatism's political agenda ("Zeitfeisty," February 23). His charge, occasioned by my essay "Excommunication for Thee..." depends on distorting my argument and misrepresenting his own writings. Worse, Wolfe's accusation obscures the common ground on which, in these angry times, left and right can come together.

I largely agreed with Wolfe's judgment, rendered in a book review in The New York Times, that Dinesh D'Souza's The Enemy at Home was not only deeply flawed but incendiary. But I also criticized Wolfe for going beyond hard-hitting analysis to demand D'Souza's excommunication from conservative circles. Further, I pointed out that Wolfe's call for excommunication was self-incriminating, as only a few years earlier, in an April 2004 essay from The Chronicle of Higher Education, he put forward an incendiary claim of his own, namely, that, as election 2004 neared, conservatism in America had absorbed the spirit of Carl Schmitt, a German political and legal theorist who joined the Nazi party and whose thinking has long been associated with the fascist critique of the liberal tradition.

Wolfe claims that I fabricated the notion that his Chronicle essay presented a sweeping indictment of conservatives in America: "Perhaps no one on the left--or, for that matter, no one, with the exception of Peter Berkowitz, on the right--pointed out the alleged irresponsibility of the charge because it was a charge I never made."

That Wolfe never made the charge that conservatism in America reflects fascist sentiments and ideas--and that I'm the only one to say he did--will come as news to the other three authors who, in addition to me, published letters to the editor of the Chronicle (in the issue dated May 14, 2004) criticizing Wolfe for this charge. (Wolfe even responded to those letters.) Moreover, Jonah Goldberg (in an April 2004 National Review Online column) and Atlantic Monthly Associate Editor Ross Douthat (last month in a post at The American Scene), also found that Wolfe's intention was to tar American conservatism as a whole--not, as Wolfe now asserts, to diagnose the tendencies of Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, and other such "vitriolic firebrands on the right."

There is at least one other public intellectual, certainly not a conservative, who agrees with me that Wolfe's aim was to offer a sweeping indictment of conservatives and Republicans by exposing the fascist currents running through their actions and ideas--and that is Alan Wolfe himself. Consider the very first sentence of his Chronicle essay: "To understand what is distinctive about today's Republican Party, you first need to know about an obscure and very conservative German political philosopher." Consider also these passages from the essay:

• [T]here are, I venture to say, no seminars on Schmitt taking place anywhere in the Republican Party and, even if any important conservative political activists have heard of Schmitt, which is unlikely, they would surely distance themselves from his totalitarian sympathies. Still, Schmitt's way of thinking about politics pervades the contemporary zeitgeist in which Republican conservatism has flourished, often in ways so prescient as to be eerie.

• Schmitt's German version of conservatism, which shared so much with Nazism, has no direct links with American thought. Yet residues of his ideas can nonetheless be detected in the ways in which conservatives today fight for their objectives.

• Liberals want to put boundaries on the political by claiming that individuals have certain rights that no government can take away; conservatives argue that in cases of emergency--conservatives always find cases of emergency--the reach and capacity of the state cannot be challenged.

• Still, if Schmitt is right, conservatives win nearly all of their political battles with liberals because they are the only force in America that is truly political.

•  To the degree that conservatives bring to this country something like Schmitt's friend-enemy distinction, they stand against not only liberals but America's historic liberal heritage.

Even after taking note of the several qualifications that Wolfe includes in his original essay, it would require the interpretive equivalent of alchemy to turn these statements, and the overall argument they advance, into anything other than an incendiary depiction of conservatism in America as an enemy at home. Therefore, as I argued, their author is deserving, on his own terms, of the excommunication that he demanded for D'Souza.

Of course, Wolfe's terms should be rejected--to protect the conditions that enable the sort of robust intellectual inquiry that Wolfe's work has so often exemplified.

Let's get on with the free and fair exchange of ideas. To do this, we need to commit to learning from both left and right. We need to remember that most of the disputes between left and right in this country turn on competing interpretations of our shared belief in individual freedom and equality under law. And we need to remember that striking the proper balance between progressive and conservative interpretations is a permanent political challenge in a free and democratic society. Let's cultivate our common ground--the better to air our disagreements responsibly and to engage in productive public debate.

By Peter Berkowitz