Michael Kazin Responds

Michael Kazin Responds

This is a defining moment for the American left. As Michael Wreszin, a distinguished historian, is well aware, reform and radical movements always get transformed in the crucible of war. The Civil War turned abolitionists into militant Republicans, World War I destroyed the dream of a unified social democracy, and the Vietnam War turned the tiny New Left into a mass insurgency—but one that few wage-earning Americans chose to follow.

The battle against terrorism and what, at this writing, appears to be an imminent war with Iraq have already caused a serious rift on the left—which is, alas, a smaller creature than its ancestors. And the ongoing crisis may further widen the split. On one side are voices like Wreszin’s, whose anger at George W. Bush and his fellow “warmongers” far outweighs his disgust at anything al-Qaeda or Saddam Hussein have done. On the other side sit, among others, some of the more loquacious editors of this magazine who believe the United States should battle terrorism and encourage democracy in the world but don’t trust the current administration to carry out those mighty, laudable tasks. One side trains all its outrage against those who rule from the White House and Capitol Hill; the other believes tyrants and mass murderers must be quelled if one hopes to build a humane world.

The question of patriotism is bound up with this ongoing debate. Wreszin thinks it’s “sensible” to dismiss love of country as a ruling-class smokescreen, yet still believes in “the American creed,” although he doesn’t stop to define it. Doesn’t he realize the latter assertion contradicts the former one? To engage in politics on behalf of national ideals is to practice one’s patriotism in a principled manner that most Americans can understand. To mock that belief system implies that one’s fellow citizens—including those who carry placards reading “Peace is Patriotic”—are fools.

This is a matter not of obligation but of solidarity and common sense. Wreszin forgets a basic adage of politics—study your opponents’ successes. If 9/11 had never happened, the regime of Bush II would resemble the second coming of the Harding administration—as an attractive, genial president with an unremarkable mind surrounded by corporate scoundrels. But the president’s defense of “freedom” against the “evil” of terrorism instantly transformed him into a militant idealist, fighting to defend his fellow Americans. Leftists who ridiculed this stance as nothing but self-serving cant made little headway in public opinion—and made themselves an easy target for the likes of Andrew Sullivan and Rush Limbaugh. Only when Bush’s image switched from that of defender of ordinary Americans into the bully of the world did an antiwar movement begin to grow at home.

To me, the lessons of these events are clear. A left...