The Reductions of the Left

The Reductions of the Left

The attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, lit up the global landscape. Not only in these two cities, but wherever the news and the pictures reached during the first hours after the planes struck-all over the planet, therefore-there were people quickly able to make out features of the contemporary world that they had not previously taken in, or taken the measure of fully, things that challenged their earlier expectations and existing frameworks of understanding. Not, however, in one quarter. With a section of the Western left, the response was as if everything remained just as it had always been. Leave aside the callousness in much of the left’s response toward the human dimension of the tragedy; but in explaining the crime of 9/11 the same thin categories that had been deployed in one conflict after another during a decade and more were instantly pressed into service. Imperialism and blowback-that was pretty much all one needed to understand what had befallen the citizens of Manhattan, the passengers on the planes, and the workers at the Pentagon, and there were accordingly people content to describe the attack as a comeuppance. The crime that so brutally illuminated the contours of the international political landscape thus revealed at the same time a frozen structure of concepts and assumptions. With the aid of it, many on the left shielded themselves from realities they didn’t want to see or to assign their proper weight. In what follows I comment on some aspects of this theoretical nexus.

I begin from a short essay by Paul Berman entitled “A Friendly Drink in Time of War,” which appeared in the Winter 2004 issue of Dissent. In that essay Berman offers six reasons why many on the left didn’t see things his way over the war in Iraq, which he supported. Abbreviating them, and also adding a seventh to the six that he enumerates (it appears toward the end of his argument, though he doesn’t include it as an “official” item with its own number), I set out those reasons: (1) George W. Bush; (2) the United States as being responsible for all the problems of the world; (3) support for anything construable as being anticolonial; (4) cultural relativism; (5) hostility to Israel; (6) a failure to take anti-Semitism seriously; and (7) lack of any genuine grasp of, or feeling for, the meaning of extreme forms of evil and oppression. As to this last point, Berman writes,

I always figured that a keen awareness of extreme oppression was the deepest trait of a left-wing heart. Mass graves, three hundred thousand missing Iraqis, a population crushed by thirty-five years of Baathist boots stomping on their faces-that is what fascism means!

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