So I went up to the antiwar demonstration in Central Park this weekend, hoping to hear some persuasive arguments. After a couple of hours there, listening to speeches, reading the hate-America literature, I still don’t know what to think about Iraq-will an attack open a Pandora’s box, or close one?-but I think I know what I feel about this antiwar movement, or at least many of the flock who showed up in the Sheep Meadow.
A movement of Marxist fringe groups and people who are unable to make moral distinctions. An inability summed up by a man holding a big poster that proudly identified him as “NYC TEACHER.” The lesson “NYC TEACHER” had for the day was that “BUSH IS A DEVIL … HANDS OFF NORTH KOREA, IRAQ, AFGHANISTAN …. ”
Yes, Bush is “a devil” compared to those enlightened regimes that torture and murder dissidents (like “NYC TEACHER”). Bush is certainly “a devil” compared to enlightened leaders like Kim Jong Il, who has reduced the North Korean people in his repulsive police state to eating moss on rocks; or to Saddam Hussein, who tortures and gasses opponents, and starves his people to fund his germ-war labs; or to the Taliban in Afghanistan, who beat women into burqas. Yes, surely compared to them, Bush is “a devil.” Thank God New York’s schoolchildren are in such good hands.
Back in 1929, Robert Graves published a memoir with the endlessly evocative title Good-Bye to All That . He was leaving England, saying goodbye to a society he felt was deeply implicated, however triumphant, in the horrors he’d witnessed firsthand in the trenches of the First World War.
Goodbye to all that . The phrase occurred to me when I heard the sad news that Christopher Hitchens was leaving The Nation . Sad more for The Nation , a magazine I’ve read on and off since high school, now deprived of an important dissenting voice amidst lockstep Left opinion. Mr. Hitchens was valuable to The Nation , to the Left as a whole, I argued back on Jan. 14 in these pages, because he challenged “the Left to recognize the terrorists not as somewhat misguided spokesmen for the wretched of the earth, but as ‘Islamo-fascists’-theocratic oppressors of the wretched of the earth.” He was leaving in part, he said, because he’d grown tired of trying to make this case in a venue that had become what he called “an echo chamber of those who believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden.”
The Nation still has assets of course: the incomparable polymath literary critic, John Leonard; the fierce polemical intelligence of Katha Pollit, which I admire however much I might disagree with her; some serious investigative reporters. And recently Jack Newfield, who long ago co-authored an important book on the populist tradition-still a faint hope for a non-Marxist Left in America.
But Mr. Hitchens’ loss is a loss not just for the magazine, but for the entire Left; it’s important that America have an intelligent opposition, with a critique not dependent on knee-jerk, neo-Marxist idiocy. And it’s important that potential constituents of that opposition, like Nation readers, be exposed to a brilliant dissenter like Christopher Hitchens.
And the level of idiocy one finds in knee-jerk Left oppositionalism is sometimes astonishing. I’d like to focus on two particular examples that have led me to want to say my own goodbye-to-all-that as well.
Before I get into the two idiocies that tipped the scale for me, I want to make clear that saying goodbye to idiocies on the Left doesn’t mean becoming a conservative, neo- or otherwise. I think I made that clear in a column published here on Jan. 28 of this year, “Where Was the Values Crowd When Dr. King Needed Them?” In that column, I argued that just as the Left had failed to come to terms with its history of indifference to (at best) and support for (at worst) genocidal Marxist regimes abroad, the Right has failed to come to terms with its history of indifference to (at best) and support for (at worst) racism and racist political allies here at home.
It’s ironic, considering what I’m about to write, that I got a nice note from that hard-core Old Red folkie, Pete Seeger, thanking me for my Dr. King column. But you know, I still can understand people like Pete Seeger joining the Party back in the 30’s during the Depression, when it looked like unregulated capitalism had cruelly immiserated America, when racism and lynchings reigned down South and it looked ( looked , I said) as if the Soviet Union was the only force willing to stand up to Hitler. But to cling to Marxism now, after all we’ve learned in the past 50 years-not just about the Soviet Union, but China and Cambodia … ?
I must confess that my own learning curve was on the slow side, having grown up reading The Nation and The New Republic and believing that the evils of Soviet Communism were a figment of J. Edgar Hoover’s imagination. My slow learning curve had a lot to do as well with coming of age during the Vietnam War and covering antiwar demonstrations, where I found myself seduced by the brilliant Groucho Marxism of Abbie Hoffman (I still miss his anarchic spirit). And (more culpably) I was fascinated by the Dostoevskian moral absolutism of the Weather Underground, although never, thank God, by the pretensions of Marxism to be a “science of history.”
I still identify myself as a contrarian, libertarian, pessimist, secular-humanist, anti-materialist liberal Democrat who distrusts the worship of “the wisdom of the market.” Someone who was outraged (and outspoken in these pages) about the Bush-Baker election tactics in Florida, for instance. But not stupid enough to think we’d be better off with Al Gore as President now; not stupid enough to think Al Gore is smart. (See my Nov. 6, 2000, column, “Al’s Screwy Scrawlings Can’t Pass for Intelligence”). Anyway, all this is a preface to the Tale of Two Idiocies that has led to my own goodbye-to-all-that moment.
Let’s begin with the little idiocy, the later one, because I think it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. In fact, I think I came across it shortly before I had heard of Mr. Hitchens’ farewell. One irony of it is that this little bit of idiocy was penned by a former Hitchens acolyte, a sometime Nation writer now living in London who appended a cruel little addendum to what ostensibly was a review, in London’s Times Literary Supplement , of Tom Hanks’ Road to Perdition .
At the close of an uninspired review of an uninspired film (How many times must wannabe intellectuals quote Robert Warshow when speaking of gangster films? Shouldn’t there be some kind of statute of limitations?), the writer graces us with this final reflection:
“Still, if Road to Perdition ultimately fails as entertainment, it offers rich material for allegory. Maybe it was because I attended a screening on Sept. 11, but I couldn’t help seeing Hanks as an American everyman, a pure-hearted killer who will commit no end of mayhem to ensure a better life for his children. Imagine Willie Loman with a tommy gun, and you’ll see what I mean. ‘You dirty rats! Attention must be paid.'”
But of course! What a brilliant point he’s making in the course of preening his anti-Americanism before his audience of U.K. intellectuals. What does Sept. 11 remind him of? The way Americans are killers. Sept. 11 becomes, in his lovely leap of logic, really about Americans being pure-hearted killers capable of “no end of mayhem,” infinite evil deeds. Doesn’t everybody think that way? (Everybody in his little circle, I imagine). Sept. 11 reminds them that Americans are first and foremost murderers, so let’s not spend a moment acknowledging that little matter of Sept. 11 being a day on which 3,000 Americans were murdered by the “pure-hearted killers” of Al Qaeda. Who, when not committing mass murder, stone women as punishment, torture gays, crush free thought by executing dissidents. No, they get a pass (and the 3,000 become non-persons). Because they hate America, they must be for liberation, and so we can’t blame them; we must accuse ourselves of being killers. In fact, we should thank them for providing our witty writer with an occasion for reminding the world that the “American everyman” is a killer.
That one paragraph is a useful compression of the entire post-9/11 idiocy of one wing of the Left. That’s what Sept. 11 has come to mean to much of the Left: a wake-up call for American self-hatred. Mr. Hitchens was one of the few who challenged that consensus.
But when I say goodbye-to-all-that, it’s a goodbye that’s been brewing ever since the Really Big Idiocy, the one I encountered barely a month after Sept. 11, from a more illustrious figure on the Left, an academic Left paragon.
It was a mixed gathering with a heavy representation of Left academics, and people were going around the room and speaking about the attacks and the response. Over and over, one heard variations on the theme of, “Gee, it’s terrible about all those people who died in the towers and all”-that had already become the pro forma disclaimer/preface for America-bashing-“but maybe it’s a wake-up call for us to recognize how bad we are, Why They Hate Us.” The implication was evident: We deserved it. It would be a salutary lesson . It was the Pat Robertson wing of the Left in full flower: Sinful America deserved this Judgment from the sky. Crocodile tears could be shed for those people who died in the towers, but those buildings were so ugly , they were such eyesores , they were a symbol of globalist hubris-it was as if the terrorists who flew the planes into the towers were really architectural critics , flying Herbert Muschamps, not mass murderers.
No, we must search for the “root causes,” the reasons to blame the victims for their unfortunate but symbolically appropriate deaths. And on and on, until I felt myself already beginning to say goodbye to the culture that produced this kind of cruel, lockstep thinking. Until finally, the coup de grâce -the Big Idiocy, the idiocy di tutti idiocies. It came from the very well-respected and influential academic, who said that there was at least one thing that was to be welcomed about 9/11: It might give Americans the impetus to do “what the Germans had done in the 60’s”-make an honest reassessment of their past and its origins, as a way to renewal.
Reassessment of our past: Clearly he was speaking admiringly of the 60’s generation in Germany coming to terms with its Nazi past, with Germany’s embrace of Hitler.
At that point, having sat silently through an accumulation of self-hating anti-Americanism, I couldn’t take it any more. I’m not a demonstrative patriot; I don’t believe in putting God in the Pledge of Allegiance, for instance. I don’t believe in making people pledge at all -there’s something collectivist about it. But this last was too much: We should be grateful for 9/11 because it would allow us to reassess our shameful, even Nazi-like, past?
“Isn’t there an implicit analogy you’re making between America and Nazi Germany?” I asked. “It’s just an analogy,” he said. Well, goodbye to all that, goodbye to the entire mind-set behind it: the inability to distinguish America’s sporadic blundering depradations (dissent from which was sometimes successful) from “Germany’s past,” Hitlerism. It was “just an analogy.” O.K., then, let me make an analogy here, one that I believe goes to the “root cause” of Left idiocy of this sort.
The analogy that occurred to me grew out of a conversation I had several years ago with the philosopher Berel Lang, author of Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide , a talk that took place in the course of researching my book, Explaining Hitler . Mr. Lang is an extremely thoughtful and meticulous thinker on the question of degrees of evil, and the role of intentionality in determining them. He was speaking about the question of whether one could say there was “a history of evil”-whether Hitler represented a new fact, a new landmark in that history, and if so, what the next step might be.
I suggested the “next step” might be Holocaust denial, because the deniers had found a diabolical way to twist the knife, compounding the pain of the survivors by negating and slandering the memory of the murdered.
Mr. Lang demurred, because he had his own notion of what the next step in the history of evil might be. The paradigm for it, he told me, was the postwar career of Martin Heidegger, the Nazi-friendly philosopher beloved to distraction by postmodernists (and Hannah Arendt).
All of whom apologized for him, despite an increasingly damning series of revelations that disclosed his toadying to Hitler’s thugs in order to attain professional advancement, hailing Hitler’s Reich as the ultimate synthesis of politics and his philosophy.
But that wasn’t what made Heidegger a new chapter, Mr. Lang said; it was his astonishing postwar behavior. After everything came out, after it was no longer possible to deny at least post facto knowledge of the Holocaust, nothing changed for Heidegger. He felt no need to incorporate what happened into his philosophy. “His silence,” Mr. Lang said, “it wasn’t even denial. For him, it wasn’t important! It wasn’t important …. Now if you ask which of them is worse … the Revisionists [Holocaust deniers] deny it occurred, but their official position, at least, is that if it occurred, it would have been wrong. But Heidegger knows it occurred, but it’s just not important-it’s not something to distort history to deny. For Heidegger, this is not history to concern oneself with.”
Not history to concern oneself with ….
Here’s the analogy: Heidegger’s peculiar neutrality-slash-denial about Nazism and the Holocaust after the facts had come out, and the contemporary Left’s curious neutrality-slash-denial after the facts had come out about Marxist genocides-in Russia, in China, in Cambodia, after 20 million, 50 million, who knows how many millions had been slaughtered. Not all of the Left; many were honorable opponents. But for many others, it just hasn’t registered, it just hasn’t been incorporated into their “analysis” of history and human nature; it just hasn’t been factored in. America is still the one and only evil empire. The silence of the Left, or the exclusive focus of the Left, on America’s alleged crimes over the past half-century, the disdainful sneering at America’s deplorable “Cold War mentality”-none of this has to be reassessed in light of the evidence of genocides that surpassed Hitler’s, all in the name of a Marxist ideology. An ideology that doesn’t need to be reassessed. As if it was maybe just an accident that Marxist-Leninist regimes turned totalitarian and genocidal. No connection there. The judgment that McCarthyism was the chief crime of the Cold War era doesn’t need a bit of a rethink , even when put up against the mass murder of dissidents by Marxist states.
The point is, all empires commit crimes; in the past century, ours were by far the lesser of evils. But this sedulous denial of even the possibility of misjudgment in the hierarchy of evils protects and insulates this wing of the Left from an inconvenient reconsideration of whether America actually is the worst force on the planet. This blind spot, this stunning lack of historical perspective, robs much of the American Left of intellectual credibility. And makes it easy for idiocies large and small to be uttered reflexively. (Perhaps the suggestion I recently saw on the Instapundit.com Web site calling for an “Anti-Idiotarian” party might be appropriate.)
Recently I saw the strangest documentary, a film with a title that sounds like a Woody Allen joke: Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary . It’s a New York Film Festival pick and well worth seeing, just for the example of willed, obtuse blindness on the part of the secretary when she claims that she was insulated from all the terrible things happening during the war. But even Hitler’s secretary-unlike Heidegger, unlike the knee-jerk anti-American Left-feels the need to make some gesture of dismay at her “blind spot” in retrospect. But not the know-it-alls of the Left, who have never been wrong about anything since they adopted Marxism as their cult in college. What would the harm be in admitting that one didn’t know as much at in college as history has taught us now?
But noooo … (as John Belushi liked to say). Instead, we get evasions and tortuous rationalizations like the Slavoj Ziz^ek zigzag: This extremely fashionable postmodern Marxist academic will concede the tens of millions murdered by Stalin, etc., but it’s “different” from the millions murdered by Hitler, because the Soviet project was built on good intentions , on utopian aspirations; the tens of millions dead were an unfortunate side effect , a kind of unfortunate, accidental departure from the noble Leninist path that still must be pursued.
It’s sad, though, because one senses that Mr. Hitchens forced a lot of people on the Left to confront their blind spot, their on-bended-knee obeisance to anyone in the Third World who posed as a “liberator,” from Mao to Castro to Arafat and the Taliban. This was why Mr. Hitchens was so valuable and hopeful in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, hammering away at the point that the Islamo-fascists weren’t friends of the oppressed, they were oppressors -of women, gays, poets and all dissenters.
But now, a year later, it seems that despite Mr. Hitchens and a few other voices, such as Todd Gitlin’s, the blind-spot types have won out on the Left-the blind spot to Marxist genocide obscuring any evil but America’s. You could see it at the Sheeps Meadow. You can see it in the hysterical seizure on Enron and other corporate scandals: See , we were right all along-corporations and businessmen are (surprise!) greedheads. This excuses averting their eyes from anti-American terrorism-from people and regimes preparing to kill Americans rather than merely diminish their 401(k)’s. Enron was the fig leaf many on the American Left needed to return to their customary hatred of America. Because America isn’t perfect, it must be evil. Because Marxist regimes make claims of perfection, they must be good.
So, for my part, goodbye to all that. Goodbye to a culture of blindness that tolerates, as part of “peace marches,” women wearing suicide-bomber belts as bikinis. (See the accompanying photo of the “peace” march in Madrid. “Peace” somehow doesn’t exclude blowing up Jewish children.)
Goodbye to the brilliant thinkers of the Left who believe it’s the very height of wit to make fun of George W. Bush’s intelligence-thereby establishing, of course, how very, very smart they are. Mr. Bush may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer (I think he’s more ill-informed and lazy than dumb). But they are guilty of a historical stupidity on a far greater scale, in their blind spot about Marxist genocides. It’s a failure of self-knowledge and intellectual responsibility that far outweighs Bush’s, because they’re supposed to be so very smart.
Goodbye to paralysis by moral equivalence: Remind me again, was it John Ashcroft or Fidel Castro who put H.I.V. sufferers in concentration camps?
Goodbye to the deluded and pathetic sophistry of postmodernists of the Left, who believe their unreadable, jargon-clotted theory-sophistry somehow helps liberate the wretched of the earth. If they really believe in serving the cause of liberation, why don’t they quit their evil-capitalist-subsidized jobs and go teach literacy in a Third World starved for the insights of Foucault?
Goodbye to people who have demonstrated that what terror means to them is the terror of ever having to admit they were wrong, the terror of allowing the hideous facts of history to impinge upon their insulated ideology.
Goodbye to all those who have evidently adopted as their own, a version of the simpering motto of the movie Love Story . Remember “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”?
I guess today, Left means never having to say you’re sorry .