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Towards A Decent Left?
Liberal-left misrepresentation and selective targeting of left commentary on 9-11
Among the many disagreeable parts of the aftermath of September 11, we might include the intensification of internal unpleasantness within an American left. This latest unpleasantness has been a fairly one-sided affair, with most of the heat coming from the centrist liberal-left, associated with journals like Dissent and American Prospect and writers like Michael Walzer, Jeffrey Issac, and Christopher Hitchens. It has been directed at the more radical left, associated primarily with Z Magazine, ZNet, and, insofar as the liberal-left is willing to name names, Noam Chomsky.
The liberal-left accusations, many of which have been repeated and updated in the recently released Spring issue of Dissent, include the following:
- The left made relativist justifications and excuses for terror because they spoke and wrote about the pivotal role that United States foreign policy and related Middle Eastern poverty had played in creating the context for the rise of terrible and extremist terror networks in the mideast and because they noted that the U.S. and its clients were responsible for massive terror across the world today and for the last 50 or more years.
- Radicals excused terror as the only weapon left to the weak and powerless, forgetting that terror is the reflection of the morally flawed human agency of people who have failed to build a strong political relationship with the masses they claim to represent.
- Radicals naively saw 9-11 as some sort of virtuous anti-imperialist response to the interrelated evils of world-capitalist inequality, corporate globalization, and U.S. hegemony. Michael Walzer even accused the left of reveling in the attacks and thinking that the victims of 9-11 and of terror generally deserve their fate because they are beneficiaries of empire.
The liberal-left charge of left apology appeared in the first post 9-11 editorial in In These Times. It claimed that certain unnamed commentators, mostly on the left had excused the inexcusable attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by Islamic extremists with the relativist claim that the U.S. and its clients had often matched and gone beyond the crimes of 9-11 during recent history.
This charge was echoed by Michael Walzer, editor of the social-democratic journal Dissent. In an article titled Excusing Terror: the Politics of Ideological Apology in the liberal-left journal American Prospect (October 22, 2001), Walzer accused parts of the European and American left of justifying the September attacks with rationalizations rooted in their political culture of excuses. According to Walzer, the left excused terror as the only weapon left to the weak and powerless, forgetting that terror is the evil choice of people who have failed to build a strong political relationship with the masses they claim to represent. Walzer agreed with the Nations leading liberal-left columnist Christopher Hitchens that left critics (what Hitchens called the Chomsky-Zinn-Finkelstein crowd) naively saw 9-11 as some sort of virtuous anti-imperialist response to the interrelated evils of world-capitalist inequality, corporate globalization, and U.S. hegemony. He even accused the left of thinking that the victims of 9-11 and of terror generally deserve their fate because they are beneficiaries of empire.
The liberal-left attack on the left got especially personal in an October American Prospect essay penned by Indiana University Professor and frequent Dissent contributor, Jeffrey Issac, bearing the pithy title Thus Spake Noam. Issac named Chomsky as a de facto apologist for the September atrocities on the basis of a rhetorical argument made by Chomsky in The New Military Humanism (2000). To be morally consistent, Chomsky argued in that book, those who supported the bombing of Belgrade as punishment for Serbian actions in Kosovo should also have advocated the bombing of Jakarta (Indonesia), Washington, DC, and London to punish Indonesias U.S.-and UK-sponsored genocidal invasion, annexation, and more recent terrorization of East Timor. This argument, Issac claimed, encouraged anti- American terrorism, because it made no policy relevant distinctions and implied moral equivalency between the behavior of the terrorist Indonesian state and the noble intentions and actions of humanitarian and democratic states like the U.S. and England. Isaac further claimed that Chomsky encouraged terrorism by offering no serious alternatives to U.S. imperialism and no meaningful global dialectic other than that between evil American empire and quasi-virtuous anti-imperialist/anti-American terror.
For Walzer and Issac, leftists failure to appreciate the necessity of Americas imperial response to September 11 as the result of a tangled web of left pathologies. These pathological patterns include:
- A lingering rag-tag Marxist belief that any group that attacks the imperial power must be a representative of the oppressed and its agenda must be the agenda of the left
- Guilt, festering resentment, and self-hatred produced by living in the worlds only superpower and enjoying its privileges and by long years spent in [supposedly] fruitless opposition to the global reach of American power
- A knee-jerk moral-purist attachment to blaming America first and a related sense that everything that goes badly in the world goes badly because of us
- A sense of not being entitled to criticize anyone outside the privileged U.S. and a related suspension of any and all judgment about the behavior and values of non-Americans
- A naïve attachment to pacifism that is, in reality, a morally bankrupt commitment to powerlessness and doing nothing in the face of manifest evil, leaving Americans defenseless in the face of future attacks
Walzer is so disgusted by radicals self-hating refusal to sign up with the official explanations of and response to 9-11 that he wonders, in a question that provides the title for his essay, Can there Be a Decent Left?
Straw Dogs and Red-Herrings
The liberal-lefts charges against the left are serious, going to the heart of the lefts moral integrity. Fortunately, it is easy to show that the liberal-left attack horribly misrepresents what radicals actually said and wrote about the causes and meaning of 9-11. As will be seen, the distance between the liberal-left description of left response and the reality of what the left actually said and wrote is quite remarkablea chasm really. One is left to wonder whether writers like Walzer had the decency to actually read the lefts readily available commentary before assaulting it.
The left has consistently denounced the attacks as what Chomsky on October 18 at MIT called a horrendous atrocity, probably the most devastating instant human toll of any crime in history, outside of war.
U.S. Crimes wrote Stephen Shalom and Mike Albert in October, in no way justify or excuse the attacks of September 11. Terror is an unacceptable response to U.S. crimes. Here is my own comment at a September 18 forum at Northern Illinois University: The September 11th terror attacks on the World Trade Center were hideously and horribly evil. There is no acceptable justification for the destruction of innocent lives, mostly of ordinary working people, including secretaries, firemen, [sic] janitors, food service workers, and child care workers. Whoever ordered, financed, and directed the assault is by definition a cold-blooded monster. They must be found and held accountable for their colossal crime.
Of course, these unambiguous statements are not good enough for the liberal-left. It seems to think the left excused and even approved of 9-11 because it had the audacity to question the official Bush line that America was targeted because of its supposed special commitment to freedom and democracy and because it discussed some of the factors that helped create a [Middle Eastern] environment conducive to recruiting people to commit horrible acts against the U.S. Those factors included the widespread and understandable feeling among Arabs that the U.S. obstructs freedom and democracy as well as material plenty for others; U.S. support of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians; U.S. support for authoritarian regimes that supply U.S. corporations with huge profits and powerful opposition to movements that oppose those profits; and U.S. promotion of a global economic system that creates massive poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Also reprehensible to the liberal-left was the lefts insistence on seeing 9-11 in comparative and historical context relative to terrorist U.S. actions and those of its client states and to the general course of atrocity in the human record. Chomsky had what the liberal-left considers the inexcusable effrontery to note that 9-11s terrible human consequences have been matched and gone beyond by numerous terrorist actions conducted by the U.S. and its clients, including the Clinton administrations brazen bombing of Sudan.
The liberal-left critique of left relativism is based on an imbecilic conflation of explanation with rationalization and understanding with approval. It is based also on a concomitant failure to see the at-once practical and moral necessity for an explanation that goes beyond the misleading rhetoric of the political, military, and media establishment. Does an historian embrace Adolph Hitlers crimes when he or she writes about the historical circumstances that contributed to the rise of Nazism? No more than a good sociologist justifies murder by analyzing the social, economic, and/or other circumstances that tend to increase the number and frequency of homicides.
In a famous 1961 essay on historical causation, the great British historian Edward Hallett Carr noted that an Institute and Chair of Criminology had recently been set up at Cambridge University. It would not, I feel sure, occur to any of those investigating the causes of crime to suggest that this committed them to a denial of the moral responsibility of the criminal. In his What Is History? (1961), Carr wrote with appropriate intellectual and moral disdain for those who argued, explaining human behavior in causal terms implies a denial of human free will and encourages historians to evade their supposed obligation to pronounce moral condemnation on the Charlemagnes, Stalins, and Napoleons of history. He noted that few people in everyday life hold to the ridiculous ideas that human actions are governed purely by free will, without relation to external and historical circumstances. Without knowledge of those circumstances, Carr knew, there can be no intelligent understanding of historical crimes to provide a reasonable basis action to prevent replication of terrible past events.
Consistent with Carrs common-sense analysis, the post-9-11 left talked and wrote about the historical and social context that had likely given rise to al Quaida and its terrible deeds not to excuse those deeds but rather to understand them and prevent their reoccurrence. At the same time, they noted American crimes, past and present, and those of other regimes, not to excuse those of 9-11, but rather because those crimes are part of the context for the atrocities of September. They sought also to remind citizens that American policy makers held no moral basis to claim special virtue and a related right to launch a military response that would certainly widen the circle of human suffering, killing many innocent Afghans (as in fact occurred), and possibly provoke new attacks on Americans. They hoped also to tell their fellow Americans why most of the rest of the world, not without real sympathy for the victims, nonetheless saw 9-11 from a very different perspectivesomething we might want to understand if we wish to respond in a way that contributes to healing rather than more violence.
Prevention, not rationalization, was and remains the motive behind the writings of the left commentators. As Chomsky put it in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, we have a choice as to how to react: we can express justified horror; we can seek to understand what may have led to the crimes, which means making an effort to enter the minds of the likely perpetrators we may try to understand, or refuse to do so, contributing to the likelihood that much worse lies ahead.
Virtuous Struggle of the Poor?
Since Chomsky is the main butt of their post 9-11 attacks on the left, the liberal-left ought to review the following early (October 2) exchange between Chomsky and a questioner who communicated through an MSNBC chat room. This exchange clearly shows that Chomsky had no naïve, romantic, or Marxistrag tag or otherwiseideas about the virtuous proletarian and/or anti-imperialist character of 9-11s likely perpetrators, the Taliban, or other extremist Muslim organizations:
BERLET: I agree with you that aggressive militarism is not the answer to this mess, but the Taliban and Osama bin Ladens networks seem to be totalitarian and apocalyptic clerical fascist movements. Isnt this a moment the left needs to just say it is against terrorism, and that groups like the Taliban and Bin-Laden networks are not liberation stuggles but reactionary or fascistic movements that we oppose?
CHOMSKY: As far as Im aware, thats what the left has been saying for 20 years. I know I have ever since these groups were organized by the CIA, Pakistani, and Egyptian intelligence and other U.S. allies. They were organized, recruited, trained, and armed to fight a holy war against the Russians, which they did. But they also started right away carrying out terrorist acts. Twenty years ago they assassinated the president of Egypt and theyve been carrying out terror ever since. The groups that the CIA organized were drawn from extremist radical Islamic groups and they have been pursuing their own agenda. They did what the CIA wanted them to, but they have also been pursuing their own agenda. There is no doubt that from the start they were murderous terrorist organizations. I dont know if the word fascist is exactly correct, they dont have that kind of ideology. But theyre extremely dangerous and have been for 20 years. It is quite obvious. Thats been the position, as far as Im aware, of any serious person on the left as far back as I can remember.
Here, further, is Chomskys readily available, published response, given within ten days of the attacks, to a radio journalist who wondered if bin-Laden and al Quaida were motivated by bitterness towards U.S.-sponsored capitalist globalization and related American cultural hegemony (Noam Chomsky, 9-11; NY: Seven Stories Press, 2001): As for the bin-Laden network, they have as little concern for globalization and cultural hegemony as they do for the poor and oppressed people of the Middle East who they have been severely harming for years. They tell us what their concern are loud and clear: they are fighting a Holy War against the corrupt, repressive, and un-Islamist regimes of the region, and their supporters, just as they fought a Holy War against the Russians in the 1980s .Bin Laden himself has probably never even heard of globalization. Those who have interviewed him in length, like Robert Fisk, report that he knows virtually nothing of the world and doesnt care to.
Here, and in numerous other pieces that could be cited, Chomsky and others on the left showed that they had no stupid leftist illusions about the character of 9-11s likely perpetrators. It was common on the post-September left, in fact, to note that bin-Laden was an extraordinarily wealthy man, a member of the same social class as George W. Bush who didnt care less about the Third Worlds poor and oppressed, and owed much of his terrorist capability precisely to American empire.
It is true that the left rejected the mainstream U.S. claim, repeated by the liberal-left, that Islamic hatred of progressive modernity and the American way of life (whatever the relationship between those) were the main motives behind the attacks. It is also true that the left accompanied its post-9-11 writings and speeches with some rather harsh commentary on the different ways that American global policy generates hatred of the United States within the Middle East and how that hatred provided fertile soil for the seeds of anti-American terrorism. To say this is not, however, to believe that the September 11 attacks were specifically motivated by a desire to strike a blow at American imperialism.
In fact, the left actually downplayed grievances against U.S. empire as the motivation behind 9-11. It suggested a very different explanation fleshed out in the following readily available statement from the ZNet site: Why [did the terrrorists] commit a grotesquely provocative act against a power so large, so armed, and so dangerous as the United States? Perhaps provoking the United States was precisely the intent. By provoking a massive military assault on one or more Islamic nations, the perpetrators may hope to set off a cycle of terror and counter-terror, precipitiating a holy war between the Islamic world and the west, a war that they can lead and that they may hope will result in the overthrow of all insufficiently Islamic regimes and the unraveling of the United States, just as the Afghan war contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union. Needless to say, this scenario is insane on every count one can assess (Albert and Shalom, Talking Points).
On September 22, Chomsky argued, Bin Ladens prime target is Saudi Arabia and other corrupt and repressive regimes of the region, none of which are [by bin Ladens estimate] truly Islamic. He and his network are intent on supporting Muslims intent on defending themselves against infidels wherever it may be: Chechnya, Bosnia, Kashmir, Western China, Southeast Asia, North Africa, maybe elsewhere. They fought and won a Holy War to drive the Russians out of Muslim Afghanistan, and they are even more intent on driving the Americans out of Saudi Arabia, a far more important country to them, as it is home to the holiest Islamic sites.
At the October 18 talk at MIT, Chomsky made a crucial distinction between two categories, which shouldnt be run together. The first category was the actual perpetrators, whom he described in no uncertain terms as monstrous criminals. The second was the significant reservoir of [poplar] support or at least sympathy for attacks on the U.S. in the Middle East, thanks to various well-known dark and deadly aspects of U.S. policy in the region. Even in the second category, Chomsky noted, much of the most significant support came not from the poor but from Arab bankers, lawyers, and professionalshardly the natural enemies of capitalism championed by the advocates of rag-tag Marxism.
Chomsky spoke and wrote quite clearly against the notion of terrorism as the weapon of the weak. He argued that terrorism is primarily a weapon of the strong, overwhelmingly, in fact. It is held to be a weapon of the weak because the strong also control the doctrinal systems and their terror doesnt count as terror.
Blaming the Victims?
The liberal-left suggestion that the left blamed the victims and not the terrorists for the atrocities of 9-11 was shameless, unsubstantiated radical-bashing, not serious criticism. Walzer could not and cannot find anyone outside the lunatic fringe saying or writing anything that comes even remotely close to holding the dead and maimed of September 11 as responsible for their fate.
It is true that the left pointed out some uncomfortable facts regarding the historical and ongoing role of U.S. policy in the Middle East. It argued that the U.S. had been consistently and powerfully opposed to the democratic process there, that its opposition contributed to the reservoir of anti-Americanism that creates space for terrorists to thrive, and that the U.S. has long contributed critically in various ways, some direct, to the selection of medieval extremism and terror over nonviolent resistance in the Arab world. To note these facts was not, however, to embrace or apologize for terror, unless, again, one clings to the imbecilic notion that to understand a crime is to support it.
Issacs use of Chomskys The New Military Humanism also falls squarely into the cheap-shot category. Written more than a year before September 11, 2001, that book never embraced the bombing of Washington, London, or Jakarta. Also contrary to Issac, it made more than a few policy relevant distinctions between the humanitarian crimes committed in Kosovo and East Timor. Chomsky argued that those distinctions, including the comparative sheer quantity of death and destruction inflicted by state terrorists (much greater in the case U.S.- and UK-sponsored Indonesian assault on East Timor than in the case of Serbias attack on Kosovo) made Washington more deserving of punitive bombing than Belgrade in a world where it was deemed appropriate to punish state crimes against humanity with deadly international attacks on the criminal states civilian populations. It was clear, however, that neither Chomsky nor anyone else on the serious left even remotely embraced or embraces such a world. His argument was rhetorical, meant to illustrate the inconsistency of U.S. foreign policy and rhetoric and not to embrace the horrible actions that would result from the argument being made consistent in policy. Issacs contention regarding Chomskys text was hideous enough in and of itself. To insert this appalling argument into his post 9-11 smear of Chomsky was doubly lacking in basic decency, leftist or otherwise.
Advocating No Response?
The liberal-left is terribly wrong, finally, to claim that the left has advanced and advances no response to the terror attacks and the threat of future terrorism. Both before and since 9/11, Chomsky and others on the left have spoken and published at length on the superiority and desirability of an approach to world tensions that relies on international law, multilateral negotiation, and global social justice and democracy. They have insisted that there are some very basic things that American policy makers can do to prevent future terror attacks, including removing U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern bases, dropping the sanctions that have killed more than half a million Iraqi children, and taking a much firmer position on Israel, forcing that state, which relies heavily on U.S. assistance, to dramatically change its treatment of the Palestinians. Leftists have also suggested that America develop alternative energy sources to lessen American societys environmentally disastrous dependence on Middle Eastern oil and thereby reduce Americas need to be engaged in the Middle East in the first place. The preference for such non-violent actions, embraced less in the name of pacifism than of basic desires for violence-reduction, increased security (including that of Americans) at home and abroad and elementary principles of civilization, has been consistently evident in left commentary. By saying that the left advocates doing nothing, the liberal-left hopes to cloak its apparent definition of doing something with bombing innocent civilians and the expansion of U.S. state terrorism.
Reflecting deep servility to power, there was a delicious selectivity at the root of Hitchens, Walzer, and Isaac focus on radicals. To be consistent across ideological lines, they should have leveled their inaccurate charges of moral relativist excuse mongering at the Wall Street Journal. The Journal ran a candid September 18 story describing the broad basis of approval for the attacks among even affluent residents of the Middle East. Many of the latter were reported by the Journal as thinking that what happened in New York is not all that different from what America has inflicted on Iraqis, Palestinians, Sudanese, and other Muslims. A related Journal dispatch reported that sympathy for Americas victims in the Arab world was qualified with a reflexive twinge of satisfaction that the U.S. was at last paying a price for its strong support of Israel and its insistence on sanctions against Iraq, Libya, Syria, and other states.
The mainstream corporate Newsweek would have been a yet more appropriate target for left-liberal attacks on those who have the temerity to explain middle-eastern anti-American terror. Under the title of Why Do They Hate Us? that magazines October 15 cover story offered an extensive discussion of how imperial U.S. policies in the Middle Eastthe same ones emphasized by Bin-Laden et alcreate massive raw anti-Americanism across the region. The article was written by Fareed Zakaria, a onetime managing editor of Foreign Affairs who supported the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan.
An even better target would have been the Chicago Tribune. On Sunday, September 30, that papers Perspectives section contained a piece titled A New World Disordered: the Seeds of Terror Thrive in Poor Ground by international correspondent R.C. Longworth. Longworth argued that savage inequalities and the related mass unemployment generated by U.S.-sponsored corporate globalization created fertile soil for terrorism even while it opens Americans to easy attack. If any region has got the worst of the global economy, but none of the best, Longworth elaborated, it is the Middle East.
Longworth quoted a former U.S. Commerce Department official, William Van Dusen Wishard, to chilling effect. According to Wishard, in a globalized world with instant communications, it is impossible to have excessive opulence alongside grinding poverty without something, sometime, somewhere, exploding. We Americans have flaunted our affluence and power in the face of the world, and the world has reacted in varying degrees, terrorism being only the most extreme form of reaction. There are many more examples, including USA Today, which provided a discussion of the roots of the new Arab anti-Americanism in the facts of an imperial U.S. policy.
The ultimate missing targets in the left-liberals attack on terrorisms supposed apologists (well, explainers), however, was the U.S. policy establishment. Liberal-leftists on the hunt for the argument that terrorist attacks on American targets are a predictable result of American empire should have reviewed a report produced in 1997 by the Defense Science Board for the U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology. This elite study found, historical data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States. In addition, it continued, the military asymmetry that denies nation states the ability to engage in overt attacks against the United States drives the use of transnational actors [that is, international terrorists].
Liberal-leftists looking for dangerous people who argue that imperial chickens come home to roost in terrible ways might also wish to investigate the recent millennial vision statements of the U.S. Space Command and the CIA. Both predict increasing terrorist threats to U.S. national interests and investments resulting from U.S.-sponsored economic globalization, which they acknowledgequite contrary to official U.S. statements on the alleged universal benefits of free tradeto be widening the gap between the planets haves and have-nots.
Certainly, largely due to 9-11, things are difficult enough for those who believe in social justice in the United States without the progressive community diving into an orgy of internecine warfare. In the hope of restoring some unity on the more leftward side of American life and in the interest of its own integrity, the liberal left should tear down some of the straw dogs it has built up in the wake of last Septembers terrible events. The liberal-left attack on post-9-11 left commentary is based on extraordinary misrepresentation of what the left actually said and wrote about the historic crimes inflicted on America last summer. It is only basic decency to consult the real record of those you judge. Z
Paul Street is a freelance writer and social policy researcher in Chicago, Illinois. His essays and reviews have appeared in Z Magazine, Monthly Review, Dissent, and the Journal of Social History.