Andrew Sullivan is a hard-hitting American political commentator with his own website and this excellent column neatly sums up the dilemma facing all those Yank-bashers on the left.
One of the overlooked aspects of the war we are now fighting is the awakening it has spawned on the left. In one atrocity, Osama bin Laden may have accomplished what a generation of conservative writers have failed to do: convince mainstream liberals of the illogic and nihilism of the powerful post-modern left. For the first time in a very long while, 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.
Of course the initial response of left-wing intellectuals to Sept. 11 was one jerking of the collective knee. This was America’s fault. From Susan Sontag to Michael Moore, from Noam Chomsky to Edward Said, there was no question that, however awful the attack on the World Trade Center, it was vital to keep attention fixed on the real culprit: the United States. Of the massacre, a Rutgers professor summed up the consensus by informing her students that “we should be aware that, whatever its proximate cause, its ultimate cause is the fascism of US foreign policy over the past many decades.” Or as a poster at the demonstrations in Washington last weekend put it, “Amerika, Get a Clue.”
Less noticed was the reasoned stance of liberal groups like the National Organization for Women. President Kim Candy stated that “The Taliban government of Afghanistan, believed to be harboring suspect Osama bin Laden, subjugates women and girls, and deprives them of the most basic human rights — including education, medicine and jobs. The smouldering remains of the World Trade Center are a stark reminder that when such extremism is allowed to flourish anywhere in the world, none of us is safe.” The NAACP issued an equally forceful “message of resolve”, declaring, “These tragedies and these acts of evil must not go unpunished. Justice must be served.”
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Left-wing dissident Christopher Hitchens, meanwhile, assailed his comrades as “soft on crime and soft on fascism”. After an initial spasm of equivocation, The American Prospect magazine ran a column this week accusing the pre-emptive peace movement of “a truly vile form of moral equivalency” in equating President Bush with terrorists. Not a hard call, but daring for a magazine that rarely has even a civil word for the right.
Most moving was Salman Rushdie’s early call in the New York Times to “be clear about why this anti-American onslaught is such appalling rubbish. Terrorism is the murder of the innocent; this time, it was mass murder. To excuse such an atrocity by blaming US government policies is to deny the basic idea of all morality: that individuals are responsible for their actions.” Whatever else is going on, the liberal-left alliance has taken as big a hit as the conservative-fundamentalist alliance after the blame-America remarks of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.
It’s not hard to see why. Unlike previous Cold War battles, this one is against an enemy with no pretense at any universal, secular ideology that could appeal to Western liberals. However repulsive, the communist arguments of, say, Ho Chi Minh or Fidel Castro still appealed to a secular, Western ideology. American leftists could delude themselves that they shared the same struggle.
But with Osama bin Laden, and the Islamo-fascism of the Taliban, no such delusions are possible. The American liberal mind has long believed that their prime enemy in America is the religious right. But if Jerry Falwell is the religious right, what does that make the Taliban? They subjugate women with a brutality rare even in the Muslim world; they despise Jews; they execute homosexuals by throwing them from very high buildings or crushing them underneath stone walls. There is literally nothing that the left can credibly cling to in rationalizing support for these hate-filled fanatics.
This is therefore an excruciating moment for the post-modern, post-colonial left. They may actually have come across an enemy that even they cannot argue is morally superior to the West. You see this discomfort in the silence of the protestors in Washington, who simply never raised the issue of bin Laden’s ideology. You see it in Barbara Ehrenreich’s sad plea in the Village Voice: “What is so heartbreaking to me as a feminist is that the strongest response to corporate globalization and US military domination is based on such a violent and misogynist ideology.”
You see it in the words of Fredric Jameson, a revered post-modernist at Duke University, arguing in the London Review of Books that the roots of the conflict are to be found “in the wholesale massacres of the Left systematically encouraged and directed by the Americans in an even earlier period. . . . It is, however, only now that the results are working their way out into actuality, for the resultant absence of any Left alternative means that popular revolt and resistance in the Third World have nowhere to go but into religious and ‘fundamentalist’ forms.” The only adequate description of this argument is desperate. And, of course, it ducks the hard question. What does the left do now that these forces are indeed fundamentalist?
The other rhetorical trope that is fast disintegrating is the anti-racist argument. The doctrine of “post-colonialism”, which now dominates many American humanities departments, invariably sides with Third World regimes against the accumulated evil of the West. So the emergence of the Taliban is a body blow. If dark-skinned peoples are inherently better than light-skinned peoples, then how does a dark-skinned culture come up with an ideology that is clearly a function of bigotry, misogyny and homophobia?
One immediate response is to argue that the US itself created Osama bin Laden in its war against Soviet communism. This isn’t true — but even if it were, doesn’t this fact, as Mr Hitchens has argued, actually increase the West’s responsibility to retaliate against him?
It may be, in fact, that one of the silver linings of these awful times is that the far left’s bluff has been finally called. War focuses issues in ways peace cannot.
Leftists would like to pretend that any criticism of their views raises the spectre of domestic repression. But in a country with a First Amendment, no suppression from government is likely, and in the citadels of the media and the academy, the far left is actually vastly over-represented. The real issue, as pointed out this week by Britain’s Labour prime minister, is that some on the left have expressed “a hatred of America that shames those that feel it.”
The left’s howls of anguish are therefore essentially phony — and they stem from a growing realization that this crisis has largely destroyed the credibility of the far left. Forced to choose between the West and the Taliban, the hard left simply cannot decide. Far from concealing this ideological bankruptcy, we need to expose it and condemn it as widely and as irrevocably as we can. Many liberals are already listening and watching — and the tectonic plates of politics are shifting as they do.
Andrew Sullivan, a senior editor of The New Republic, writes daily at andrewsullivan.com.