David Rieff

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
July 13 1999 3:00 AM

David Rieff

Why does the intellectual conscience of the new world order contradict himself? Because he is large. He contains multitudes.

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If "intellectual" were a title like "baron" that could be inherited, few people would have a stronger claim to it than David Rieff. His father is University of Pennsylvania sociologist Philip Rieff, the author, most notably, of Freud: The Mind of A Moralist. His mother is essayist, novelist, filmmaker, and political activist Susan Sontag, as iconic an intellectual as our resolutely anti-intellectual culture is ever likely to recognize.

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David, the only child of their brief marriage, may well prove to be the most influential member of the family. He is certainly the most visible, holding forth in the pages of everything from the Wall Street Journal to the New Republic to Salmagundi. More than any other journalist, Rieff has tried to mold the lessons of Bosnia and Rwanda into a coherent worldview. For him, these wars exposed the political bankruptcy and strategic incompetence not only of Western governments but, even more starkly, of the international do-gooder establishment--the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the proliferating nongovernmental organizations that provide relief on the ground in times of emergency.

Rieff has relentlessly argued that the prevailing paradigms of humanitarian assistance and international law are inadequate to the brute realities of the post-Cold War world. A willingness by the Western powers--in particular the United States--to intervene on one side in military conflicts rather than treat them as quasinatural disasters is the only way to advance the causes of democracy and human rights. While his response to NATO's intervention in Kosovo has been, as we shall see, ambivalent, the decision to intervene is evidence that Rieff's arguments have, for the moment, prevailed.

There is an obvious irony in the fact that the son of one of the most implacable critics of American imperialism in the '60s should emerge as one of its most vocal champions in the '90s. More amazing still is that Rieff couches his saber rattling in the language of dissent. He takes strong, uncompromising positions that leave him curiously unaccountable. When his mother went to Hanoi in 1968, she returned with the conviction that a North Vietnamese victory was the best outcome for Vietnam, for America, and for the world. In the decades since, she has had to grapple with the consequences of that position. Rieff's interventionist stances on Bosnia and Rwanda evade such reckoning. He is always ready to take a position on what should have been done.

Rieff has also short-circuited criticism by making arguments that, if they are not flatly self-contradictory, can only be the stages of a grand dialectical work-in-progress of Hegelian complexity. He has hailed those who work for NGOs as heroes, while decrying the NGOs themselves as "feudal lords" of "the new medievalism." He has heralded the end of the nation-state and dismissed rumors of its death as exaggerated. He is a self-described "Neo-Wilsonian" who is skeptical of liberalism, hostile to the United Nations, and suspicious of empire. He has called the advocates of civil society "the useful idiots of globalization" even as he has co-edited a new book--Crimes of War: What the PublicShouldKnow--that seems to rest its hope for a humane international order on the shoulders of transnational, extra-governmental institutions. The only position he consistently advances is that he is right and everyone else is wrong.

Before he became the intellectual conscience of the new world order, Rieff was an editor, reviewer, and travel writer. His first two books, Going to Miami: Exiles, Tourists, and Refugees in the New America and Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World, relate his discovery that the cultural geography of American cities was being transformed by a new wave of immigrants from the Third World. Apparently, he made the discovery all by himself. The nonimmigrant residents of Miami and Los Angeles appear in Rieff's books to be, if not entirely clueless about what's going on around them, then at least hopelessly unable to explain it. "Everyone I knew was taking the transformation of their own country in stride," Rieff marvels in Los Angeles. Not him: "Often, I would sit in a restaurant and be literally unable to follow the conversation going on around me, so mesmerized was I by the Laotian busboy, or the Peruvian parking lot attendant, or the Haitian dishwasher--our new fellow countrymen. Who are they? I thought. Who are we? I thought." What the hell are you looking at? thought the Laotian busboy.

Even then, Rieff was thinking on a global scale, pondering the decline of the nation-state, the transformation of the international economy, and the obsolescence of New York City. He was also indulging his taste for grandiose pronouncements:

The great lesson of New York's decline was that the curtain comes down just as surely on historical periods as it does on individual lives. ... And what could be said about New York seemed to me to apply also to America as a whole. In retrospect, Reaganism had been less a period in which the United States reassumed the mantle of empire than one in which new empires--Japanese finance, the European Community--began to take their proper role in the world.

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n retrospect, this is nonsense, but at the time it no doubt seemed prophetic. Rieff might have reread these passages before he wrote a scathing review of Thomas L. Friedman's The Lexus and the Olive Tree for the Los Angeles Times last month, in which he ridiculed Friedman for just this kind of naive extrapolation of the future from the present. Friedman may be guilty of the fatuous contention that no two countries with McDonald's franchises have ever gone to war with each other, but Rieff, in Los Angeles, indulges in some fast-food mysticism of his own when he sees a harbinger of our globalized, miscegenated, Third World future in the advent of the pita fajita.

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