Daniel Bell: Jewish Conservative and Jewish Radical

The prominent sociologist and writer Daniel Bell, who died in 2011, would have celebrated his one-hundredth birthday last Friday. In a thoughtful reminiscence, his son David A. Bell argues that his career was characterized by a constant, creative tension between radicalism—absorbed from the Yiddish-speaking socialists of his childhood on the Lower East Side—and a fundamentally conservative temperament. But the latter, writes the younger Bell, was as much a product of deeply held Jewish commitments as the former:

[M]y father’s political experiences after 1932 only seemed to confirm what he had first felt on reading [as a teenager about the Soviet regime’s bloody repression of dissenters]. There was the unfathomable degree of murder, pillage, cruelty, and suffering of Stalin’s purges, and the show trials, and the Great Terror, followed by the war and the Holocaust. And even after the Holocaust ended and the war was won, a threat still remained. Stalinists took power in Eastern Europe, with more purges, more show trials, more terror, and even, at the end of Stalin’s life, the threat of renewed persecution of the Jews. . . .

He continued to recoil against political extremism throughout his life, because of a deeply personal revulsion at the violence and cruelty that could so easily overwhelm civilization’s weak defenses. . . . This conservatism found its way into his work, above all in [his 1976] The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. From its very first paragraphs, he warned about “the unraveling of the threads which had once held the culture and the economy together,” and about the destructive effects of the “hedonism” he saw embodied in popular culture. . . . While he may have been referring most immediately to the youth culture of the 1960s, it is hard for me not to hear in the words an echo of [what he elsewhere called] the “sweeping, unrestrained impulses to break the law” that he saw Jewish theology as struggling to contain. The law mattered. Order mattered. . . .

At the same time, there was also, still, much Yiddish radicalism in him. He did not himself encounter the sort of fierce, radicalizing humiliation that his Jewish counterparts had earlier faced in Poland and Russia. . . . Even so, especially when he traveled outside New York, he encountered his share of genteel anti-Semitic humiliation. He didn’t like to talk about these moments, but they were certainly there, and they stung. [But] he often spoke, with a certain mischievous pride, of the time he and a friend broke out into a loud chorus of “The Internationale,” in Yiddish, in that inner sanctum of Englishness, the Reform Club in London. For him, the response to humiliation was to force the people who wanted to exclude him to accept him.

It was this stubborn Yiddish radicalism which, as much as anything, kept him from following his friend Irving Kristol into neoconservatism. . . .

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Read more at Dissent

More about: Anti-Semitism, Jewish conservatism, Judaism, New York Intellectuals, Socialism

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy