Shortly after I arrived at Yale, I met with a member of the Yale branch of the “International Socialist Organization” in order to discuss the politics of the left on campus, a place in which I might fit. Predictably, our discussion focused on the war in Afghanistan. I meekly and humbly suggested that the war was one of legitimate self-defense against a murderous enemy not just of the United States, but of the very concept of a liberal pluralistic society. That war, I further added, had begun to resemble a war of humanitarian intervention by liberating the Afghan population from theocracy in general and Afghan women from the precepts of Sharia-inspired misogyny in particular.
The war, it seemed to me, was justified by the moral standards and expectations of the left itself, at least the anti-Stalinist left in which I had been raised and with which I continue to affiliate. Liberal society; secularism; defense of the rights of women: are these not indispensable pillars of any politics that claims to be democratic and leftist? Mustn’t liberal society defend itself against the forces of barbarism and oppression? Apparently not.
The war, I was told (only after my interlocutor made it perfectly clear that he sympathized with the victims of the 9/11 attacks), was waged in order to secure the oil reserves of the Caspian Sea basin that had been threatened by the presence of a regional power hostile to American hegemony. Indeed, the war was an extension of American imperialism, an illegal act of aggression against a nation that had committed no crime. It was an act motivated by naked selfinterest and the callous needs of an everexpanding market to secure new resources, regardless of the cost in human life of such expansionism. And, it goes without saying, the thousands of Afghan civilian deaths were the precise moral equivalent of those murdered in the World Trade Center and Pentagon, yet the American crime seemed somehow worthier of condemnation.
As for the consequences of the war within Afghanistan itself, I was informed that I was operating under an illusion that the people had been liberated; in fact, warlords who were “just as bad” as the Taliban had taken over and women were back in burkas.The only concrete political difference was the establishment of a regime friendly to American economic goals.
Have I got everything? The threads of delusion at work in such an analysis of the Afghan war are so numerous and tangled that one ought not to try too hard to unravel them for fear of losing one’s grip on reality. Nevertheless, this depressing exchange offers at least a point of departure in my examination of the downward spiral of a once-important political movement, the far left of the student population. My learned friend’s intuitions about the causes of the war are not his alone. They are shared, in the traditional “progressive” mode of groupthink, that is, by the vast majority of those who make up the “Students for Peace” (Yale Coalition for Peace?) , an organization that favored total inaction against the Taliban and al-Qaeda when the war began and hasn’t yet, even now, been struck by a second thought on the subject. As an intellectual movement, the student left is dying and exhausted.
Every new paranoid conspiracy theory about the Bush Administration (the latest, for those keeping track, is that Paul Wellstone was murdered by Bush, Ashcroft, et al. for voting against a war on Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship); every unsupportable allegation of the government’s foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks; each recourse to the Communist Manifesto as a means of explaining Islamic fanaticism or marginally anti- Semitic innuendo moves the left another inch closer to the grave.
The majority of the “radical” intellectual left continues to mouth the old ritual response of solidarity with the oppressed, compassion for one’s fellow man, and the extension of human rights and democracy. But the left is politically and morally adrift. In place of solidarity, compassion, and support of democratic freedom, it has substituted a degraded marxisant materialism, a visceral and nonthinking hostility to the United States, and a studied inability to register new facts or information to reconsider its own positions. These are the three symptoms of the intellectual sloth that is suffocating the left. Let us consider each:
The historical materialism of Marx and Engels is not present in the discourse of the anti-war campus left. They have managed painfully to misinterpret Marx in an ignorant appropriation of his ideas and terminology. They attribute material causes to all the historical phenomena they observe, regardless of the obvious absurdity of positing material motivations to the fanatical ethnic and religious strife that dominates the contemporary global political realm. For this left, it is a simple postulate that al-Qaeda is an organization committed to revenge against the United States for the many crimes of empire.
Al-Qaeda and its grim leader are, in this analysis, mouthpieces of the victims of American imperialism and economic globalization. Their mass murder of more than a year ago was a thwarted, re-channeled protest against the Empire or its local Middle Eastern servant and enforcer, Israel.Pity that they didn’t engage in the sort of peaceful protest some endorse — but the essential point of the murderers was a valid one. (The left cannot conceive of anyone disagreeing with American policy for reasons other than those that the left cite against American policy) Thus, they twist themselves into lending credence to the notion that the political programme of the Bin-Ladenite forces is essentially the same as their own. To put the matter differently, anyone who is against capitalism and against America is an ally in the struggle.
But this is absurd. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were committed to the worldwide implementation of inflexible Muslim theocracy. They had already created a nightmare totalitarianism in Afghanistan and had attempted to extend their dominion within the Islamic world by means of an attack on the apostate West. Further, it is not true that Islamic fanaticism stems from resistance to western imperialism. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, the staging ground, armorers, and financiers of Islamic fascism, respectively, are not victims of American economic and political hegemony so much as its ungrateful bastard children.
As for the causes of the American response to the September atrocities, it is absolutely inconceivable that America— a sovereign nation—should exercise its right of self-defense. The United States is, in that cracked looking glass Weltanschauung, the only country in human history incapable of justifiably going to war. The United States, the dialectic should instruct us, can only engage in war as a means of economic aggrandizement; there simply had to be a direct material object of the campaign. And if one is not immediately apparent, it is only for lack of searching. Why not, let us say, Caspian oil? The leftist who has made it this far in his reasoning is only a step away from asserting that the ouster of the Taliban was scheduled before the United States itself was attacked. The attacks, in other words, had no bearing on the subsequent policies.
Leftist moral philosopher Michael Walzer once recounted his encounter with a number of European academics and intellectuals at the time of the American intervention in Kosovo, who earnestly believed that it was all an elaborate deception in order to win control of Serbia’s oil resources. Never mind, of course, that Serbia has no oil resources. Every American action or intervention, they believe, is economically motivated in precisely the same way. Ethno-fascism in the case of Kosovo and Islamic fascism in the case of the Taliban, simply do not register as causes of conflict. Marx never made such philistine blunders. He understood that not all motivations were material, and that capitalism, for all of its callousness towards the individual worker, is a vast improvement on every system that preceded it. The desolate rabble of the radical campus left appreciates none of this. Instead, it has opted for a breathtaking revival of the Stalinoid intellectual tradition. Whenever an empirical fact casts doubt on dogma and theory, those on the radical campus left would rather deny or suppress the fact than be bothered to expend the mental effort necessary to rethink their theory.
I am obliged to give a closing word to the fashionable postmodernist multiculturalism and third-world fetishism that constitute the next stage of paranoid leftist dementia, beyond the ad hoc pseudo-Marxian pyrotechnics discussed above. Its iterations are unmistakable. My favorite goes something like this: “Bush’s ‘war on terrorism’ (sneer, sneer) is a thinly veiled act of cultural [as opposed to economic] imperialism. We are all called upon to be non-judgmental, to accord due respect to the uniquely different and beautiful cultures of the world, and to the governmental forms that are the political expressions of those cultures. There are no objective standards by which one can call one society in any way superior to another; to do so would be to perpetuate the European/North American-oriented global cultural hierarchy, which is the true enemy, the prime cause and sole guilt-bearer for ‘Islamist’ [always in ‘ironic’ quotation marks] terrorism.” This is the condensed version. Still, it ought to set off alarums that it is quite impossible to speak or write in this idiom without grotesque pile-ups of verbal refuse.
One can estimate rather quickly, without lapsing into the vernacular of privileged Western culture, precisely how much respect is due the nihilists who exploded the Buddha statues at Bamiyan and destroyed the National Museum in Afghanistan that had been the record of an ancient and flourishing civilization. The Islamic totalitarians have no culture. They are the absolute and irreconcilable enemies of culture, and those po-mo self-caricatures who put themselves at pains to feel liberal grief over prejudice against Islamist “life-style choices” have adopted a bleak and sterile nihilism of their own. In order to be “respectful” and “non-judgmental,” these leftists have abdicated the responsibility of all autonomous citizens to defend the precepts of free speech, thought, and inquiry. But then, bourgeois liberty never held much value for them anyway. Would they miss it if it were taken away?
Whether a leftist derives his ideology from Marx or from the mishmash of postmodern theorists (Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard— take your pick from among the ranks of the repulsive), it is all too easy to allow such ideology to crystallize into an unshakable faith. Such unwavering adherence to dogma is a mirror of the unquenchable jihadism of al-Qaeda. When dogma overpowers skepticism in the mind of a leftist— this is the trend I have tried to discern within the incoherent babble that now passes for criticism—he has ceased to be radical at all.
This is the outward posture of the antiwar left, the aspect of its ideology familiar to most people. “America is always wrong.” That’s one way of putting it. “America is fascist.” There’s another— a bit stronger, a bit hotter under the collar. “America practices terrorism, too.” That is a backhanded way to assert the United States’ unique guilt, as the leftist who claims it will be sure not to broach the topic of any terrorism other than the American sort. Similar statements of moral equivalence are similarly dishonest: by positing moral equivalence between the United States and some grisly despotism, the goal is to demonstrate America’s unique moral culpability, as the other side of the equation in such models is never discussed. Any balanced attempt to consider America’s own sometimesshameful history is rendered impossible by the bad faith and ulterior motives of those who seek to prove the United States inherently evil.
That reflexive anti-Americanism is an ignorant attitude rather than any proper application of logic is fairly easy to demonstrate. Consider only the United States’ last two major international interventions. In 1998, when Serbian racist, fascist bullies attempted to destroy the Muslim population of Kosovo, the United States— despite the spinelessness of the Clinton Administration and the vociferous opposition of hypocritical conservative realpolitikers of the Powell and Kissinger schools—saved the Kosovars from total extirpation in a process that has culminated in the prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes. Milosevic, recall, had previously been behind the internment of Bosnian Muslims in concentration camps. Traditionally Leftists are supposed to defend unpopular minorities in precisely such desperate straits as those of the Bosnians and Kosovars.
How did the radical campus left respond to belated US intervention against ethnic cleansing? By waxing hysterical on the bullying of the Serbs and imperial ambition in the Balkans. So let us at least dismiss the delusion that the left has at its heart the best interests of Muslims. In the past year, as the US acted in its self-defense against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the left shifted its ideological tack and denounced the imperialist bullying of Muslims. So, a pattern emerges. When the US acts to save Kosovar Muslims from Serbian Orthodox genocide, it must be blamed for imperialism in the Balkans; when the US defends itself against outrageous acts of violence, and in the process liberates a captive Muslim population, the US is actually expanding its imperial control of the Muslim world. In short, no matter what the US does, it is axiomatically wrong. The leftist who adopts this position— see how well Noam Chomsky’s 9/11 sold in college towns—must therefore oppose any American international policy without hesitation and without thought. And such a position, whatever else one may say about it, is at the very least unencumbered by the immense and overbearing freight of reason and logic.
Inability to apprehend new or changing circumstances
The greatest tragedy in the life of the average leftist activist in college is that he is too young to have taken part in the resistance to the Vietnam War. So he makes it his mission to view every global conflict in which the United States plays a role as Vietnam redux. A young man in this dreamlike posture is frozen in 1975, even though his political recollection cannot possibly extend that far back. Hence, the tired vocabulary of “endless war,” “quagmire,” etc., and the stomach-turning encomia to the forces of Islamic theocracy as if they were morally equivalent to the brave resistance fighters of the Indochinese peninsula. The willed inability to recognize a new political situation as new— i.e., as without historical precedent, as something other than the product of history’s cyclical laws—is the consequence of the unread third-hand Marxism and reflexive anti-Americanism described above. All the confused and inchoate ideologies of campus leftism condense into a series of unquestionable postulates: the US is always acting in the wrong; the US always acts toward its own material gain; any opposition to the US is justified in its ends at least, and perhaps in its means as well. American imperialism is morally similar to historical fascism and to third world despotism, and many more. Almost any deranged explanation of the operations of global politics can be made to seem plausible if such premises as these are granted.
The leftist begins his theoretical work on the assumption that the United States is the quintessential imperial enemy, and seeks to prove that the United States is the quintessential imperial enemy. Whatever happens in the world of flux is nothing more than an inconvenient interruption in the ongoing recitation of the litany of American crimes.
The most depressing fact of the left’s degeneration into embittered, venomous, humorless self-parody is that a morally balanced intellectual left has scarcely ever been needed more than it is now. The debate on war against Ba’athist tyranny, just like the debate on war against the Taliban, has been for all intents and purposes a debate between interventionist conservatives and isolationist conservatives. How else can one describe the dismal spectacle of Patrick Buchanan and Brent Scowcroft attacking Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz? Simply because the war in Afghanistan was fought for just reasons is no guarantee that the war would be conducted justly. It should have been the role of the left to hold the administration to its humanitarian commitments. But the left decided instead to bleat on like a shepherdless flock about imperialism.
There are, similarly, any number of justifications for a war to remove Saddam Hussein, especially if—as looks inevitable— he continues to act in defiance of his obligations to the United Nations. The great task of the left ought to be to shame those committed to fighting a war in Iraq into fighting it as a humanitarian intervention, to hold them to the promise of their rhetoric. The left ought to exert every bit of its energy in asserting that the campaign in Iraq will not be complete without the establishment of an Iraqi democracy. Instead, the left has opted for a perverse nihilism about morality and about the potential good uses to which superpower hegemony can be turned.
Rather than engage with the political and ethical questions of the real world, the left has lazily chosen the self-defeating task of moral posturing and casuistry, in order that it never need offer a proper answer to the pressing questions of the day. Unless the left can rebuild itself— and it continues to provide ample reason to think that the moment is already too late to do so—then the left and all it stands for will be tossed onto the festering compost-heap of history.
Daniel Koffler, a Leftist, is a freshman in Calhoun College.