Open Letter to Ellen Willis


posted to on March 25, 2003


Dear Professor Willis,


(For the benefit of Marxmail and PEN-L subscribers, here's a word of introduction about Ellen Willis. She is a journalism professor at NYU who is married to Stanley Aronowitz, a social democratic bigwig, author and professor. Shortly after 9/11, they were both cited in the NY Observer as favoring a war in Afghanistan to root out our terrorist foes. About five years ago, I once tried to have a conversation with them on West 8th Street in Greenwich Village, but was thwarted when Willis galloped ahead of her spouse whining, "Come on, Stanley".)


In your article on Paul Berman in today's (, the newspaper of record for liberal warhawks and anti-antiwar activists like yourself, you quibble with his faith in the Bush administration but otherwise endorse the ideas contained in his new book on "Terrorism and Liberalism," namely that Islamic fundamentalism and Ba'ath Party socialism are the latest threats to Western civilization that take the place of previous challenges represented by fascism and communism.


Before responding to this argument, I want to begin with a comment on the journalistic flourish with which you begin your article. Appalled by Dan Rather's seeming inability to ask tough questions to Saddam Hussein (a complaint echoed by Don Imus, Michael Savage and other rightwing shock jocks, I would add), you ask, recalling her tough interview with Henry Kissinger, "Where is Oriana Fallaci when we need her?"


Now it is entirely possible that reading a newspaper is not within the purview of journalism professors, but let me inform you where Oriana Fallaci is today. She has morphed into a raving, racist warhawk who most sane people regard as rightward of Attila the Hun. Charging that Muslims "multiply like rats", she has written numerous columns and now a book titled "The Rage and the Pride" arguing that a new crusade is needed to rid the world of Islamic fundamentalism. Come to think of it, this book does not sound all that different from Paul Berman's.


In presenting Berman's arguments, which can best be described as boiler-plate liberalism in Eurocentric gift wrapping, you mention the importance of Albert Camus:


For Camus, the human impulse to rebel takes a sinister turn, beginning with the French Revolution and flowering with 19th century romanticism: "The love of freedom and progress" becomes "weirdly inseparable from a morbid obsession with murder and suicide." This obsession finds its way into anarchist and socialist revolutionary movements in Russia, Europe, America. A variant of it crops up in European colonialists in Africa, with such insane events as the Belgian massacre of the Congolese.


Now, it is entirely possible that journalism professors at NYU are not required to know much about history, but I would remind you that Camus tried to steer a middle course between French colonialism and the independence movement, condemning the use of violence on both sides. The student left in France regarded Camus as useless at best or a pro-imperialist mouthpiece at worst.


Indeed, this was the view that most of us had of Paul Berman in the 1980s when he used his bully pulpit at the liberal Village Voice to lash out at Sandinista and Reaganite brutality. There is a special place in hell I would think reserved for "plague on both your houses" intellectuals such as Camus and Berman, and those perhaps who sanctify their treachery.


According to you, Berman's queries as to why rebellion turns nihilistic and how the quest for freedom becomes a craving for submission involve a dynamic that is profoundly erotic. You expand on his arguments by saying:


The perversion of sexuality into sadistic aggression has always been the underside of repressive patriarchal cultures, East and West; suicide -- aggression turned against the self -- is its close companion. The will to power is the will to ecstasy is the will to surrender is the will to submit and, in extremis, to die. Or to put it another way, the rage to attain a freedom and happiness one's psyche cannot accept creates enormous anxiety and ends in self-punishing despair: murder-suicide, the ultimate expression of rage and despair, stills the anxiety for good.


Well, perhaps. I myself would not look at the sex drive to understand why rebellion turns nihilistic, but at more mundane factors such as the power of the imperialists to distort and derail struggles of the oppressed. For example, when 21 counter-revolutionary armies, including one commissioned by liberal icon President Wilson, invaded the USSR in 1919, they fostered a reign of terror that was met reluctantly in kind by the revolution. To understand this dynamic, I find E.H. Carr more useful than Freud, but you of course are entitled to your own interpretations.


After some more purple crypto-Nietzschean prose deployed on behalf of Berman's new crusade, you state:


In his conclusion, Berman picks up Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s 1949 call for "a new radicalism" -- by which he means, as Schlesinger meant, a dynamic liberalism ready to fight for its ideals: for human rights and women's rights, ethnic and religious tolerance, the rule of law against racism, anti-Semitism, obscurantism, poverty. I agree, absolutely, that we should defend democratic values, abroad as well as at home.


Isn't this the same article that most scholars regard as Schlesinger's contribution toward the opening guns of the McCarthyite witch-hunt? By failing to mention his stated objective to quarantine scholars who were members of or close to the CPUSA, one must assume that you either failed to study this part of liberalism's sordid career, or endorse it through your silence.