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Think the Taliban’s taking a beating? How about America’s left? It’s being pounded in the thinky mags and op-ed pagesand by friendly fire, too.
First, the friendly fire. The American left was fractured long before the events of Sept. 11, with Ralph Nader’s challenge to Al Gore’s candidacy the most recent cleft. The attacks in New York and Washington made the divides even worse. Moderate columnists such as Washington Post regular E.J. Dionne and the Nation’s Eric Alterman felt compelled to disown what the latter columnist dubbed the “Hate America” left in an Oct. 29 Nation article. Christopher Hitchens’ compelling assessment of the left’s stake in the fight against bin Laden and what he calls “fascism with an Islamic face” in Oct. 8’s Nation was the most articulate statement about recent events. Yet Hitchens has spent days in an undignified mud-wrestle with pedantic lefty Noam Chomsky on the Nation’s Web site, too.
There has also been a noticeable sloth in the left’s adjustment to newly transformed circumstances. Take the liberal publication In These Times. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, that magazine’s reliance on reflexive nods to traditional pieties has rarely deviated from the “Cats and Peace” calendar offered for sale in its classifieds. In its first issue after the attack, dated Oct. 15, the palpable shock hadn’t quite settled in. Naomi Wolf noted that the “game of war” was over. Doug Ireland noted that the “inevitable result of Black Tuesday will be to drive this increasingly conservative country…even further to the right.”
By the Oct. 29 issue, reality still hadn’t bitten in. The opening exchange in Jeff Shaw’s interview in that issue with Chalmers Johnson, the author of Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, serves as a succinct illustration:
Q: Is what happened on September 11 an example of blowback?
A: Of course it is. That’s exactly what my book was written for: It was a warning to my fellow Americans, a year ago, that our foreign policy was going to produce something like this.
In short, the left’s a mess. And that’s even before you get to Katha Pollitt’s ridiculous anti-flag screed in the Oct. 8 Nation. That articlein which Pollitt admitted that she had forbidden her daughter to fly a flag from their living-room windowhas been recycled ad nauseam by right-wing publications as the echt liberal statement on Sept. 11. (By the Nation’s Nov. 5 issue, Pollitt had switched to carping about peace-protest puppets and musing about whether a “just” war could be wrong.)
So if the left is a mess, why are magazines such as the New Republic and the op-ed pages of the Washington Post piling on with screeds against liberals that are as strong as those against bin Laden? In the surfeit of paranoia and village-explaining on those opinion-laden pages, a paroxysmal hatred of the traitorous left cuts through loud and clear.
In his Oct. 29 Nation column, Alterman took TNR Editor Peter Beinart, Post op-ed columnist Michael Kelly, and former TNR Editor Andrew Sullivan to task for the “McCarthyite thuggishness” of their rhetoric and the indiscriminate aim at the left in their post-Sept. 11 work. Yet these writers are engaged in something more deeply flawed than sloppy and vitriolic writing. The strategy that they’ve employed is intellectual fraudthe literary equivalent of arming a Raggedy Andy doll with a water pistol and then acting outraged by the threat it poses. Its aim is to conflate various neocon bugaboosanti-globalization, pacifism, anarchy, even puppetsinto one large and terrifying “left” that must be not only refuted but utterly trashed.
Take Kelly, for instance. In his day job, he’s a Dr. Jekyll who’s busily making the Atlantic readable once again. Meanwhile, he’s appeared in the Post as Mr. Hyde, spewing calumny against pacifism. In two columns (Sept. 26 and Oct. 3) on the “evils” of nonviolence, freighted with slurs and bogus hypotheticals (“Do pacifists wish to live in a United States that has been defeated by Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein?”), Kelly seemed completely oblivious to the history and possibility of nonviolent change.
For instance (because we’re speaking hypothetically), would Kelly welcome a Gandhi or a King popping up in the Palestinian National Authority, preaching nonviolent resistance to Israeli occupation? No way. That pacifist would be evil! Or, to stray from the hypothetical, what about the case of Kosovar Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova? His 10 years of nonviolent struggle against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic’s oppression was ignored and even undermined by the West. (Because it was evil, right?) The result was the creation of the Kosovo Liberation Army, NATO’s first war, and yet another unsteady U.N. protectorate that’s tied up U.S. troops in peacekeeping. In fact, the readiness problems faced by the U.S. military in another Balkan peacekeeping mission is a topic essayed in depth in the October 2001 Atlantic.
The urgency of Kelly’s writing about “pacifism” makes one wonder just where this massive and terrifying scourge is hiding. In his second take on Oct. 3, Kelly felt compelled to broaden his attack to “the largely reactionary, largely incoherent, largely silly muddle of anti-American, anti-corporatist, anti-globalist sentiments that passes for the politics of the left these days.” Oops! Kelly left out vegetarians, animal-rights activists, and environmental activists, too!
Beinart has adopted similar tactics in TNR’s weekly TRB column. His initial post-Sept. 11 column (Sept. 24) quoted anonymous e-mail postings from one Web site as somehow representative of an anti-American strain of the “anti-globalization” movement. It was a highly disingenuous move that Alterman also attacked in his Nation column.
There’s been no improvement in subsequent Beinart essays. His Oct. 1 TRB essay was a virulent misreading of Robert Fisk’s essay in the Oct. 1 Nation. Beinart simply plundered bits that displeased him to assemble a case that Fisk and the magazine were rationalizing bin Laden’s crimes. One can argue with many of Fisk’s points about U.S. Middle East policy and its connection to Sept. 11, but it was an instanceonce againwhere Beinart stooped to misrepresentation. Fisk clearly labeled bin Laden and the terrorist attacks as “utter, indescribable evil.”
Worse yet was Beinart’s Oct. 22 column, which took as its starting point an imbroglio at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies in which a professor was demoted for his flip comment about the Koran and a wild generalization about Palestinian feeling toward the United States. Ever vigilant, Beinart saw this localized incident as not only a case of “identity politics paranoia” but also as a symptom of a vast and hypocritical abduction of free speech by the politically correct American left.
Again, this was Raggedy Andy with a water pistol. But it’s been enough to keep the left all wet. Richard Byrne