Two Takes on George Kennan

Two very different takes — mine in The American Conservative and Josef Joffe’s in the Wall-Street Journal.

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6 thoughts on “Two Takes on George Kennan

  1. Scott Lahti July 16, 2007 / 3:52 am

    ”It takes two, Baby…”

    Joffe’s among the more nimble of the sort of CFR-internationalist power-brokers likeliest to get bookers for Charlie Rose all het up, but he’s playing the neocon game a little too close for my taste here – I can almost hear Podhoretz and his ”we are in World War IV” boy-on-the-burning-deck-whence-all-but-he-had fled messianism – ”The Shot Heard ‘Round ‘The Corner’ ” with just a hairfine twiddle of the knob. The lifting of that prime bust from the atrium of the paleocon Athenaeum, Mr. Jefferson, unto a jiu-jitsu harder-they-fall throw at errant noninterventionists, was kabuki of a high order.

    Kennan’s cultural reaction, a natural draw for Lukacs and many a paleocon, has long reminded me more than a bit of Nock, no stranger to ”how diplomats make war”, as a book he introduced by his friend Francis Neilson so titled it. See, e.g., the review of one George F., (Kennan’s Around the Cragged Hill from 1993), penned by another George F., Will (from the NYTBR) –

    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=
    9F0CE7DE103DF930A35752C0A965958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all

    George F. Kennan’s conservatism is a product of his almost visceral recoil from many aspects of modern American life…To call Mr. Kennan’s conservatism anachronistic is not to disparage it: there is something bracing about a man so unreconciled to so much. And to note that his thinking is, strictly speaking, un-American is not to question his attachment to his country, which attachment he movingly affirms.

    His conservatism is a curious and not quite coherent blend of two traditions long since relegated to the losing side of American history. One is the anti-Federalist suspicion of great size in a polity, and fear of the concentration of political power in the central government. The other tradition is a high Federalist, even Tory, belief that the central government should be staffed by a disinterested elite and must be strong enough to supervise the base habits of the turbulent masses…He pleads for a “self-effacing” stance toward the world, not just because the world is largely beyond our comprehension (never mind our control), but also because all of the country’s energies are required at home if regeneration is to be even remotely possible…The United States, he says, is in “critical shape” because Americans have become “a people of bad social habits.”…Mr. Kennan grounds his thinking in an unblinking acknowledgment of humanity’s “animalistic” dimension. His assessment of sexuality is particularly chilly. Given the fissure between man’s physical and spiritual natures, “he staggers through life as best he can,” bedeviled by an insoluble conflict between what he is and what the interests of civilization require him to be.He deplores, among many other things…egalitarianism generally (because “every attempt at social leveling ends with leveling to the bottom, never to the top”)…He considers the computer useful primarily “to speed the manifold processes of a life that is plainly already proceeding at a pace far too great for the health and comfort of those that live it.” And his loathing for the automobile is almost majestic. The automobile is a “mass addiction” that he associates with myriad evils, from the increase of crime to the decline of cities and spread of loneliness. He contrasts automobile travel “with the color and sociability of the English highway of Chaucer’s time, as reflected in ‘The Canterbury Tales,’ or with the congenial atmosphere of the railway compartment of the Victorian novel.”…This is a book to be enjoyed not for its analytic rigor but for the sparks struck from a strong personality. Mr. Kennan quotes, not disapprovingly, his first ambassadorial chief, William Bullitt, saying that mankind is “a skin disease of the earth.” But, paradoxically, a species that can speak so harshly of itself is not so bad. Similarly, as long as the United States produces critics as astringent yet affectionate as George F. Kennan, it will not be so fallen as Mr. Kennan thinks it is. END

    I’ll take Kennan’s vinegar – and artistic prudence of the sort sketched below –
    over the sort of technocrat Panglosses lashed by the novelist Stephen Vizinczey (Hungarian born-and-raised, like Lukacs) in his letter to The London Review of Books – from 10 December 1998 –

    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v20/n24/letters.html

    I’ve taken a lot of flak over the years for criticising The Hedgehog and the Fox, in which Isaiah Berlin treats Tolstoy’s analysis of the way history works as something that had to do with Tolstoy’s psyche. Berlin’s failure to understand War and Peace, allowing himself to be distracted by Tolstoy’s religious mania (which is like rejecting the laws of gravity because Newton believed in alchemy), had everything to do with his faith in the Vietnam War. Though I was sufficiently anti-Communist to fight in the Hungarian Revolution and had an uncle beaten to death by the Communists during forced collectivisation in Hungary, I realised in 1966 that the Vietnam War could not possibly be won and should be abandoned, simply because I happened to reread War and Peace. The most profound wisdom about everything is in the great novelists and playwrights, but when people want to understand the world and the difference between the desirable and the possible they don’t turn to the greatest minds, which are available everywhere in paperback, they turn to supposed experts like Isaiah Berlin, Henry Kissinger and McGeorge Bundy, who with their limited intelligence and imagination and their unlimited vanity have done as much harm to Western civilisation as all its enemies put together.

  2. Michael J. Keegan July 19, 2007 / 2:41 pm

    It’s unfortunate that Mr. Joffe ends his piece with these few sentences:

    “Kennan was often brilliant in his insights — and more often wrong in his murky resentment of democracy and his odd attraction to Europe’s despots of the 1930s. Toward the Soviet Union he would play the contrarian again, arguing against his own, earlier position once it became America’s Cold War policy.”

    It is with these few sentences that a reader truly recognizes the author’s lack of understanding of the subject. The insight” draw from these setences crystallizes for me Joffe’s: a) inability to make proper distinctions, b) truly comprehend Kennan and the subject at hand, and c0 discloses his own ideological pretentions.

    1. “Murky resentment” – Kennan had a very healthy suspicion of mass democracy (in the same vain as Ortega y Gasset) and he was/is absolutely right on and crystal clear about his concern. It would do us all abit of good to become more familiar with Kennan’s insights in this area; we wouldn’t be bowing to the altar of democratic imperialism or in worshipping the silly phenomenon of the “purple finger” if our so-called leaders were more balanced and sober about the benefits of mass “democracy.”
    2. “Containment” – Mr. Joffe completely misses a very critical distinction between a concept and the proper application thereof. Kennan was very consistent — he didn’t agree with the torturous application of containment by the various U.S. administrations. He has no issue with containment conceptual; he had very strong issues with the manner in which containment was applied. What’s contradictory about that!

    It would been easier on this reader if Joffe simply began his piece with these sentences, so I come more on to an author that actually knows something about the subject…

  3. Scott Lahti July 22, 2007 / 2:43 am

    I see that Lukacs is slated to appear on C-SPAN 2’s weekend BookTV roster at 4am Eastern Sunday July 22, to discuss his book on Kennan.

  4. Daniel McCarthy July 22, 2007 / 4:47 am

    Hmm… 4 am is a little late even by my standards, but if I’m up, I’ll watch. They’ll probably re-air it at a more convenient time.

  5. Scott Lahti July 31, 2007 / 7:29 pm

    See “A War Best Served Cold” by Nicholas Thompson, in The New Yorjk Times for July 31 2007:

    “But while Truman dodged X’s advice, George W. Bush should follow it. Kennan was wrong about how we would win the cold war, but right about how to fight the war on terrorism.”

    Interesting that Thompson’s piece comes one day after the much-crowed piece in the same paper by Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, “A War We Just Might Win.”

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