Left Falls Apart as Center Holds

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“The middle part of the country-the great red zone that voted for Bush-is clearly ready for war,” Andrew Sullivan apprised readers of the London Times the week of the attack. But “the decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead-and may well mount a fifth column.” They fling around “comments that sound eerily similar to some extreme justifications offered in the Arab world,” wrote Edward Rothstein in The New York Times . Michael Kelly declared on MSNBC.com that the “largely reactionary, largely incoherent, j2

ti-corporatist, anti-globalist sentiments that passes for the politics of the left” is “objectively pro-terrorist.” Concluded Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic : “What distinguishes leftists from other Americans … isn’t their commitment to civil liberties, but their lack of commitment to the anti-terrorism efforts with which those civil liberties may conflict.”

Gentlemen, meet Mark Naison. Mr. Naison, professor of African-American studies and history at Fordham University, is an exemplary man of the left: an organizer of 60’s-era East Harlem rent strikes, a Columbia S.D.S. veteran, an appreciative scholar of the history of black Communists in New York, and a man still active in hell-raising, in community organizing in Brooklyn and the Bronx. “I felt very emotional about facile opponents of war,” he said of the weeks after Sept. 11. So he sent out an e-mail. He threatened, he said, that “if anyone said anything about America’s imperialist activities making it the moral equivalent of the Taliban and Al Qaeda … I would beat them up. I’m six feet tall and 200 pounds.” Professor Naison later withdrew the threat-although, he said, “nobody was sure I wouldn’t do it.”

Mr. Naison’s ardor may be unique. His position, however, is common enough to suggest that the chorus of left-baiters in the public prints has gotten a complicated story exactly backwards. Everyone knows the most memorable lines of the latter-day Venceneros; they’ve been recycled endlessly. Ms. Sontag says it’s America’s fault; Noam Chomsky says that bombing the Sudanese pharmaceutical factory was worse; Alice Walker pleads that “the only punishment that works is love.” It would just be too, too ho-hum to report the fact: A predominance of lefties, both name-brand and rank-and-file, feel not altogether too different about the war against terrorism than-well, Republicans.

“We are in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them,” said President Bush. “We cannot permit ourselves to strike out blindly, to hurt people who have nothing to do with this,” said Dana Rohrbacher, the Southern California Congressman who was among the lustiest of Newt Gingrich’s lieutenants. The “new moral standard has got to be that noncombatants will not be attacked. We will not kill unarmed innocent people in order to achieve a political objective.” We have just the magazine for them: The Nation . “I see our job here … as to lay out the parameters of a just war,” says its editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel.

Ellen Willis, a feminist rabble-rouser from the old days, now a professor at N.Y.U., still espouses the old Marxist-Freudian doctrine of the revolutionary potential of free love. Here’s what she said about the current circumstance: “I’ve just felt sort of an enormous sense of disconnection to the antiwar movement,” she said. “To do nothing is unacceptable.”

For Doug Henwood, a WBAI radio host who wrote the scathingly anti-capitalist Wall Street , one of the best-selling leftist books of the decade, and who called the Gulf War and the bombing in Kosovo “American imperial manipulations,” the question is a no-brainer. “This is an attack on us,” he said. “There is a near-certainty that something will be done again soon. Clearly, considerable use of force will have to be used to capture these motherfuckers.”

Finding similar sentiments among local lefties can be accomplished almost at random. One researcher at a feminist think tank said she once thought the allowances for the open-ended detention of immigrants in the anti-terrorism and anti-crime bills signed by Bill Clinton “were the most evil laws in the country.” Now, she exclaimed, “if they’d been able to do it with all 19 hijackers-whoopee!”

“International courts” figured prominently in the strategy for responding to the terror outlined in a statement the Green Party released last week. But the party’s presiding officer in Queens, David Levner, said about the Pentagon taking over the job, “If this was a short period and they got the terrorist network, I would be able to forgive them.”

And the Brooklyn Greens and War Resisters League’s peace vigil at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Flatbush on primary day this past Thursday revealed their “fifth column” to resemble a toothpick: Eight adults and three children standing quietly, holding 8-by-11 signs about an “eye for an eye making us all blind” drew less attention than a couple of Fernando Ferrer leafletters a few paces down the street.

To extend the examples doesn’t prove much. City University sociology professor Stanley Aronowitz-who recently married Ms. Willis after the couple held out for two decades “as a form of symbolic resistance to all this stuff about family values”-pointed to the 500-name listserv of the 17,000-member CUNY faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress (whose recent teach-in on the attacks, according to the New York Post , “degenerated into an anti-American rally”). Its members include the cream of the system’s left-wing activist community, and according to Mr. Aronowitz, “there’s hardly anybody who is taking a pacifist position.”

Those seeking a scientific sampling of the mood on the West Coast might consider Barbra Streisand’s Web site, now scoured of articles critical of the President “in light of recent events.” And singer and actress Courtney Love, an exuberant advocate of left-wing solutions on her Web site Hole.com, has made inquiries about joining the Marines.

“For the first time in a very long while,” wrote Mr. Sullivan, “many liberals are reassessing-quietly, for the most part-their alliance with the anti-American, anti-capitalist forces they have long appeased, ignored, or supported.”

Quietly? For the first time? In this particular coastal enclave, at least, the loudest faction on the left has long been exactly that sort of liberal.

“I don’t question people’s patriotism unless they give me a reason to,” said Eric Alterman, the Nation columnist and MSNBC commentator-but recently, he apparently had felt reason to. In his column last week in The Nation , he wrote about the “‘hate America’ left.”

Jo-Ann Mort, another prominent left-wing writer, said, “Am I part of the same project as Noam Chomsky? No. I probably haven’t been for some time. I don’t feel like I need to have a debate with Noam Chomsky.” Todd Gitlin, a national figure since he led Students for a Democratic Society in 1965, has hung an American flag off his balcony and said, “The automatic left is once more marching off a cliff.” And political essayist Paul Berman said, “I had the idea of assembling an anthology of intellectual responses to the event, and of publishing it with no introduction or explanation by myself, and of giving it the title Denial .”

One hallmark of this left tendency, alive and kicking since the 1930’s, is an untoward condescension towards comrades with whom they disagree. Phrases like “knee-jerk” are the coin of the realm. “That’s precisely what it is: take a little rubber-tip hammer and hit them right below their knee caps, and their knees jerk,” said Mr. Berman, speaking of the type Mr. Gitlin referred to in a recent essay as “the soft anti-American.” But then, condescension is also a hallmark of those whom they oppose. “Gitlin has only one function at a time like this,” said Alexander Cockburn, the fiercely antiwar Nation columnist. “He’s wheeled on to hose us down with clichés about the 60’s.”

As for Christopher Hitchens, Mr. Cockburn’s fellow Nation columnist, who has asserted the moral equivalence of the war against Osama bin Laden and the war against Hitler, Mr. Cockburn wrote in 1999: “We have long thought that Christopher Hitchens has been asking himself for years how it would feel to plant the Judas kiss.” That was friendly compared to what Mr. Cockburn thinks about him now.

The left is a tender family, its more self-conscious members ever given to nostrums like, as Doug Henwood puts it, “the right seeks converts, the left seeks heretics.” And it’s never been as tender as it is now, in a month filled with social awkwardness for New York’s left-of-centerati.

Mike Hoyt, executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review , is a “middle-of-the-road liberal” and supporter of war against Osama bin Laden. He was at a dinner party before the bombing in Afghanistan. His companions were friends going all the way back to the Ford administration. “The topic naturally came up,” he said, “and to the person to my right, the first order of business seemed to be all of America’s wrongheaded policies.” Mr. Hoyt demurred, and “it just got heated-more and more heated.” Then, he added, “I got into a fight with my own mother! She called last night …. She wanted to tell me all the U.S. had done wrong over the years, from El Salvador on down.”

“It got quite heated,” said journalist Michael Massing of a similar encounter, this one at a wedding at the Council of Foreign Relations’ Pratt Mansion on Fifth Avenue. He then matched it with the tale of “a shouting match in my coffee shop” with a friend who “was just livid about any U.S. military action”-an exchange that had every other patron in the place staring at their table.

A public-interest lawyer was sitting down to dinner at an elegant restaurant with one of her closest friends and the friend’s live-in boyfriend. She expressed her reservations about all the knee-jerk patriotism bursting into view. “My friend’s friend sort of took that as a sign,” she said, “that he should go off on how terrible America was. I said that I didn’t think that explained away the awful thing that happened. He got upset,” and quoted Noam Chomsky’s position that “the Sudan thing was absolutely as morally troubling as the act of the terrorists. He argued the same thing about the Iraqi boycott.” That was as far as things got. “I said, ‘I’m just going to have to leave if this continues,'” said the lawyer. “Basically, it was not a very fun dinner.”

As Professor Naison’s own tale suggests, the tension only becomes greater when the affinities are closer. Francine Moccio is the director of Cornell University’s Institute for Women and Work and an old 60’s hand. She reeled off the conversations she now witnesses among fellow movement veterans who once found little to disagree about: “We have always upheld pacifism and diplomacy, not bombing and violence!” asserted one. Replied another, “Who said we were pacifists in the 60’s? We just didn’t think Vietnam was a just war!”

Old generational resentments have reasserted themselves. “They look at me askance,” Professor Aronowitz says sadly of some of his closest students who “have taken an objectively pacifist line.” And new resentments have arisen. Glen Rubenstein, leader of the Brooklyn Green Party chapter, describes himself as an “anti-imperialist” who views the American flag “as a nationalist symbol that portrays, in some sense, America’s dominance of the world.” Some in his camp have pinned flags to their breasts nonetheless. (Take that, Mike Kelly: In an ironic gaffe, MSNBC.com illustrated its piece referring to “flag-burning” antiwar protesters in Washington, D.C., with a picture of flag- waving antiwar protesters.) When flag meets anti-flag on the street, Mr. Rubenstein has noticed, the result is likely to be “intense avoidance.” And it is just these encounters that never happen that have probably taken the hardest toll among friends on the left.

The encounter that may or may not have occurred in Susan Sontag’s Soho apartment recently with her son David Rieff is, of course, the one tout New York really wants to know about. Mr. Rieff, described a few years back in Slate as America’s foremost “liberal warmonger”-at an editorial-board meeting of Dissent in 1999, he expressed his enthusiasm for putting troops on the ground in Kosovo thus: “I would be in the lead vehicle!”-now says, “I support killing as many of these people as possible.”

Mr. Rieff makes the observation that there are really two lefts. “The hard left” views the attack “basically, in some weird way, as positive-as a sort of revolt of the oppressed, an act of resistance.” A “more moderate left,” he says, “really have persuaded themselves that American power is so inherently, almost genetically illegitimate” that its use, “no matter how restrained, is worse than anything else.” Ms. Sontag wrote a short response piece for The New Yorker immediately after Sept. 11 that the events were not an “attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or humanity’ or ‘the free world,’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.”

Mamma mia! Mr. Rieff pre-empted that particular question before his interviewer had time to open his notebook: “I won’t answer anything about my mother, of course,” he said. Ms. Sontag herself has rung down the curtain on any further comment on the affair. “She thinks she has been,” says Nation publisher Victor Navasky, “made some kind of moral leper.”

Mr. Rieff-who said of his ideology, “I don’t feel any deep political affiliation on either side”-distinguishes himself from everyone else interviewed for this story save one: Only he and Alexander Cockburn express an utter lack of ambivalence about their positions on war and peace. Ambivalence, in fact, is exactly how Ms. Sontag ended up explaining herself, once she had time to do so, during the media storm that followed hard upon her three New Yorker paragraphs. It is, if anything, the keynote of “the left’s” response to Sept. 11.

Adolph Reed, a legendarily combative activist and New School professor, is the kind of partisan whom it’s hard to find at a loss for words on any day. His first reaction upon hearing about the attack was “I hope they”-meaning we-“don’t nuke anybody.” Later he allowed for the appropriateness of “maybe even a military response, all things considered.” His tone is now one of regret and hesitation. “One thing I find frustrating is that there are no acceptable responses from a left perspective.” Even to think about the options, he says, is like juggling, one ball being that “what’s made it possible to fund and build an apparatus to carry the attacks out at least partly has to do with the history of Western imperalism in other regions. But the other ball is that this is an attack on innocent people-a lot of them working people.”

The former point has been judged unfashionable to the point of being, in non-left circles and in some left circles, unsayable. But it has been harder to gainsay in the wake of the recent resurfacing of a 1998 interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former Carter administration National Security Advisor. In it, Mr. Brzezinski reversed the U.S. government’s official claim to have intervened in Afghanistan to aid the Islamic fundamentalist mujahideen guerrilla movement only after the Soviet Union invaded the country; he admitted that the administration had armed the Muslims six months earlier and thus “knowingly increased the probability” that the Soviets would intervene. It would be “their Vietnam,” he said proudly in the interview. “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban, or the collapse of the Soviet empire?”

After Sept. 11, of course, the history of the world looks different. Mr. Cockburn practically spits out the words: “I mean, chickens do come home to roost! You’ve seen the Brzezinski interview! He was rejoicing!” The C.I.A. spent $3.5 billion in Afghanistan building up the mujahideen , he says, the largest covert operation in history.

But then that other ball: After the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, who cares?

So overwhelming has been the nation’s near-unanimity in the wake of Sept. 11, in fact, that many on the left have beheld it with something like a terrible awe, or as something to be latched onto if there can ever be any hope of reviving the left’s shared goal of economic justice. Many, like Mr. Alterman, have urged patriotism on their comrades as a last-ditch strategy: “Given the importance that most Americans place on patriotism as a bedrock personal value, it is folly to try to enjoin them in a battle that fails to embrace their most basic beliefs.” Cornell’s Francine Moccio concurs: “We need health care, but there’s not a 92 percent mandate for that. There’s a 92 percent mandate for building up the military and bombing. Instead of the position we took in the Vietnam War, where we clashed with the flag and the ideals of patriotism, we should wrap our ideas in them. We have to acknowledge we’re marginalized. ”

Marginalized? That, clearly, is in the eye of the beholder. But being left-wing in the Age of Beinart, Kelly, Rothstein and Sullivan is like the old joke about the only Jew in a town where everyone else read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion: “All that power they tell me I have! Why didn’t I get the memo ? ”

On one thing, David Rieff seems to have it right. A yawning gap has been revealed between the left “and large majorities of the population.” His explanation of the situation is a little off, though: He blames the left’s penchant for “depraved rationalization,” its consensus “that America did not deserve the terrorism but does deserve the hate.” In actual fact, the gap is likely to remain no matter what any lefty actually says. Knees are jerking in every political direction. And our centrists-they have become the commissars.

Left Falls Apart as Center Holds