Stephen Walt Responds to the Washington Post’s Nazi Smear

I’ve heard from several journalist-friends who were appalled by Dana Milbank’s smear of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer in Tuesday’s Washington Post, in which he likened the scholars to Nazis. So: the mud has splashed back on to Milbank. That said, two “points” Milbank made deserve further rebuttal.

1. Milbank says he overheard Walt saying after his talk at the Council on American-Islamic Relations that if you take a position against Israel, your business will suffer. Wrong. Walt is no businessman, he’s a student of policy, and what he said is that if you talk about this stuff, your academic/professional career suffers. (It’s the same point he made several weeks back on the Diane Rehm show and that I blogged about then.) Many colleagues have said to Walt, “You’re never going to work in Washington.” He adds, “I find it interesting that that is so frequently the reaction, that this has made us compete pariahs. Quite remarkable.” Yes, and Milbank is now running around collecting wood to burn the heretics in Lafayette Park.

2. Milbank hinted that Walt and Mearsheimer are Nazis because their names sound German. I emailed Walt to ask him about two things I’d heard (and never thought worth writing about before) —he’s of Danish ancestry, his wife is Jewish. Walt wrote back to amend those reports:

I am 1/4 Danish, insofar as my maternal grandfather was an immigrant from Denmark, who arrived here as a very small boy. His mother was a widow, and she died shortly after they emigrated here. He was
subsequently adopted by an American family, although he still spoke a bit of Danish as an adult. The rest of my ethnic background–if it matters– is some mix of English, German, French, and I think a bit of Swedish.

My wife’s background is a bit more complicated. She comes from Russian and Rumanian Jews on her father’s side, and Episcopalians and Catholics on her mother’s side. (Interestingly, her maternal grandfather worked in the 1930s helping German Jews escape Nazi Germany.) She grew up in New York City, in what might be loosely termed a culturally Jewish extended family, and there’s been lots of inter-marriage throughout. She was not raised in any particular faith.

As you might imagine, I find this whole type of discussion disheartening. Our country shouldn’t be debating important issues by focusing on people’s individual characteristics and backgrounds. That is what racists and anti-semites do: they look at someone’s heritage and claim to know what they think, what they believe, and how they will act. Instead of focusing on our arguments and evidence, people want to look for some hidden motivation.

Walt’s note is interesting on a couple of grounds. For one thing, it underscores the scholar’s largeness of mind. Walt is no provincial. He is a sophisticated guy, his resume is Mandarin through and through: Stanford-Princeton-Harvard. He was a dean at Harvard; he is, or he was, going places. Yet he put everything on the line because of an idea. Impressive.

His note also echoes something he said at CAIR when discussing the dual-loyalty charge some lodge against Jewish neocons: “All of us have many affiliations and commitments—to religion, families, even employers. It is OK for those different commitments and attachments to manifest themselves in politics.” Walt went on to say that when those attachments shape how people think about things, it’s OK to bring them up in political debate. I liked the way he said this. It got us past the whole rancorous dual-loyalty issue.

My critics are going to say, Weiss, ala Milbank, opened the door on this stuff by discussing Jewish tribal affiliations so bluntly. It’s true, I opened the door, and I’ll open it again (hopefully with accuracy). The point is, these affiliations have real meaning in our lives—but important ideas transcend them.