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.

While Los Angeles aims an occasional rhetorical jab at the left, Rieff's second book on Miami, The Exile, was an act of defiant apostasy, sympathetic to the Cuban émigrés' sufferings and aspirations, and contemptuous of the Castro regime. In the precincts of the American left that still dream of Fidel and Che in the Sierra Maestra, Rieff's book was greeted with murmurings of disapproval--the kind of murmurings that had greeted Sontag's famous Town Hall declaration of the moral equivalence of communism and fascism some years before.

In 1992, Rieff went to Europe to explore the transformation of its cultural geography by Third World immigration. He ended up, fatefully, in Sarajevo, just as the first details of the Bosnian genocide were becoming known. His experience in Bosnia awakened his conscience, and made his career.

The book that resulted, Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West, is an unrelenting indictment of the international community's inability--or unwillingness--to step in and stop the killing. It is an odd piece of reportage, with no interest in the evocation of place. This is post-traumatic journalism--repetitious, impatient, and emotionally raw. The Bosnians--in whose name Rieff brings his indictment against an indifferent world--function as a kind of abstraction. We see very little of their lives, and only rarely hear their voices. They are the Laotian busboy, only more like us. At the heart of the book is the claim that by treating a political cataclysm in strictly humanitarian terms, Western governments and the United Nations assured the destruction of a democratic, multicultural nation in the middle of Europe and abetted the cause of Serbian fascism. Those who protested NATO's action in Kosovo because it lacked a U.N. mandate should read Slaughterhouse to see what an earlier mandate produced: ethnic cleansing superintended by men in blue helmets.

Even though Kosovo was the West's attempt to compensate for the failures outlined in Slaughterhouse, as recently as last September Rieff opposed military action against Serbia in an op-ed, calling such intervention unwarranted because the sufferings of the Kosovars "pale in comparison" with the starvation of refugees in southern Sudan and Sierra Leone. "Unless one believes that the lives of Europeans are intrinsically more valuable than those of Africans, the humanitarian justification for military intervention is unsustainable," he wrote.

Does David Rieff contradict himself again? Has he already forgotten that Slaughterhouse castigates former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali for making a similar formulation, describing as "racist" the world's attention to Bosnia and disregard for the sufferings of the Third World? Didn't Boutros-Ghali earn Rieff's undying scorn when he told the besieged Sarajevans he could name 10 places in the world where things were worse?

But last autumn's dove became a hawk again this spring. Shortly after NATO's bombs stopped falling and Milosevic capitulated, Rieff assessed the lessons of Kosovo in a short Newsweek piece that made the case--from the safety of retrospect, naturally--for ground troops. The question of ground troops was not strategic, but moral. "Had the West been willing to unleash a ground war to secure its military, humanitarian and human-rights objectives," Rieff argued, "there would be more room for optimism." So much for southern Sudan.

Rieff's Newsweek piece did allow that, in spite of having "to fight a just war with one hand tied behind its back ... NATO actually succeeded to a greater extent than might have been predicted." "Might have been" is either disingenuous or overly modest, since Rieff himself had, almost from the start, pronounced NATO's action an unambiguous failure. In a cover story in the New Republic in May, Rieff painted a grim picture of "lost Kosovo." "The real question," Rieff insisted, "is whether the refugee emergency is going to be permanent ... or whether NATO actually intends to fight a war that will allow the refugees to return to Kosovo."

If that question has, for the moment at least, been answered, you won't hear it from David Rieff. Don't expect to see him marching in any victory parades. But don't look for him at any protest marches either. In the months ahead, you'll most likely find him in the pages of the opinion journals or across the table from Charlie Rose, heaping scorn on the U.S. government, NATO, the United Nations and, of course, the left, whoever they are. He will continue to lecture us on the importance of choosing sides, and of fighting to win. He will remain passionate, eloquent, and sure of himself. But I, for one, can't read him without hearing the strains of an old marching song from my own left-wing childhood. Which side are you on, David? Which side are you on?

A.O. Scott is a film critic at the New York Times.

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