I am unclear as to whether I’ve been a spy or a voyeur as I’ve read Michael Berube’s The Left at War. One thing was clear from the start—the author wanted to write this book to persuade, but not to persuade me. If each of us draws a circle containing tolerable or respectable beliefs at some specific radius from one’s own views, Berube offers unmistakable boundary markers separating those whose disagreements matter and those who are intellectually untouchable. This is hardly a critique since I cannot imagine any of us participating in an intellectual community without such a circle, however large. But there are ways of appreciating an argument even when one stands outside of the intellectual circle—even when one is not part of the conversation, even when one is a spy or a voyeur.
Let me first admire—and here I feel very much like the voyeur. First, this book is, in part, an effort to push out the boundaries of an intellectual (I want to say ideological) circle. Berube’s forceful (but still too soft) criticisms of what he calls the “Manichean left” represents well his desire to expose the self-serving and yet self-defeating ideology of people like Noam Chomsky. Self-serving is this ideology because Chomsky and allies occupy a sort of Gnostic (secret knowledge) redoubt that allows them to be always right and be morally above reproach. No evidence or exercise of logic is required when they pass moral judgments against the various devils of this world, beginning with the United States. Surrounded by ideological walls made impregnable by the very circularity of his thinking (every conclusion is built into every premise), Chomsky finds in every difficult choice, every messy international reality, every action taken by a bewildered leader, an opportunity to reaffirm his own moral superiority, his deep Gnostic grasp of reality, and to enjoy the distinct pleasure that comes from reaffirming with bold words a reality that he cannot imagine doubting.
Berube wonderfully teases out how the very posturing, the very insularity of the Manichean left, isolates them from those who might be open to persuasion with evidence. Perhaps more important to making their ideology self-defeating, their attraction to wild moral declarations make them symbols that opponents can all-too-easily use to tar a more generalized and amorphous “left.” One of the results is that, from Berube’s point of view, the truths contained in Chomsky’s ravings (oops, this is one of those words that Berube uses to mark those who are outside of the circle) are lost to what otherwise might be a listening world—or at least a listening public.
I admire Berube’s effort to expand the circle, but I am more impressed with the means by which he does this. Distinctions matter to this leftist. Frustrated with reductive logic, circular thinking, and improper analogies, Berube offers an admirably differentiated vocabulary, he exposes distinctions that matter, and he insists that the left cannot excuse its political failings on self-serving shibboleths like false-consciousness. To return to a previous image, Berube wants to breach the ideological redoubt so that the left can engage more meaningfully—if with less ideological purity—in the larger political world.
The Manichean left operates with a woefully inadequate grasp of the complexity of human choices, beliefs, fears, and political action. “Chomsky’s mode of address to American readers,” Berube perceptively noted, “…makes sense if, and only if, one starts from the assumption that one’s fellow Americans are Matrix dwellers” (84). One doesn’t seek to persuade such an audience because they are spiritual captives of a system that they do not know exists. One might pity them (though often one cannot help indulging in disgust) but one cannot help by telling them the truth or by seeking to persuade them. Normal political action is unhelpful, perhaps even complicity with the delusion.
Berube rejects the “all-purpose excuse” of false consciousness insofar as it prevents leftists from working within the political system to persuade some people, to modify some policies, to nudge political action toward the social-democratic left. In a rather complex, perhaps even confusing, defense of cultural studies, Berube stresses the intricate power networks of any modern hegemony, the constant interplay of cultural, social, political, and intellectual forces that contour beliefs, morals, and ideologies. Escaping the straightjacket ideology that divides us into exploiters and victims, Berube visualizes a left that can participate with much greater sophistication in the formation or re-formation of public opinion and of the structures—economic and otherwise—that powerfully, if indirectly, form hegemonic ideologies such as the neoliberalism that so unpredictably altered the trajectory of modern history.
As a voyeur, reading The Left at War excited me—as a spy it persuaded me that the left for which Berube advocates cannot govern in America. The heart of the problem, as I see it, is that as far as Berube pushes the left to reject overly-simplistic theories of power and mind control, he still does not understand the peculiar and seductive power of a right-wing liberalism that crystallized in the late 1970s. For all the complexity of the argument, reading The Left at War exposes very specific places where the author operates with blind assumptions and astonishingly reductive claims about motivation. In almost all the sections about a reified “right,” the reader must endure declarations rather than arguments and assertions that routinely foreclose any possibility that the other side engages in serious moral reflection. In several places the enlightened or leftist reader is clued in to Berube’s appropriate loathing of an ill-defined right that traffics in “bloodthirsty ravings” (in this case of right-wing pundits) and expresses the entire panoply of the moral failings of a reactionary power elite.
The “right” is not Berube’s focus and, in many ways it is incidental to his project of creating a left that can engage meaningfully in politics. His goal is to reform the left, but in the process he resorts to reifications that stand in for any serious analysis of the composition of the right. Whether the author has the historical and empirical knowledge to offer a subtle analysis of this “right” or not, it is instructive that Berube either believes his reified characterization of this political “other” or he accepts that such characterizations are required before one can be heard in the intellectual circles of the left. Either way, it exposes a huge blind spot—really two blind spots—about the nature of the wide middle of American society and about the nature and motives of the opinion leaders of this ascendant form of liberalism (i.e., right wing liberalism).
The least attractive bits of Berube’s book rest on an assumption that only those on the left can be morally earnest. One fleeting reference to Laura Bush is suggestive—that her “invocation of the rights of Afghan schoolgirls” was “shallow and opportunistic” (159). Barely a mention, this very dubious claim points to something deeper than even ideology—an unwillingness to consider opponents as people who are morally serious. Laura Bush might have been naïve or she might have not articulated a full grasp of this particular form of patriarchal tyranny, but it is hard to fathom that she expressed her concern for the rights of these girls from any motivation except moral outrage.
Berube’s most persistent shibboleth is the “Bush-Cheney” administration, the two headed monster that he wants hauled before an international tribunal. Bundled in this one coded label are dozens of assumptions about Bush’s stupidity, about nefarious motives for both domestic and foreign policy, about, in short, a deeply evil project that killed thousands, undermined social justice, and created something approaching a police state. “Bush-Cheney” turned America into a rogue nation. Well! The passion behind these beliefs not only persuade those who hold them to be absolutely certain of their judgments, but such passionate beliefs produce a moral gulf so great between people who disagree about the evils of this administration that communication is impossible. Forget about persuasion.
I stress here that we cannot communicate because we already “know” the other. Our certainty has made us want to protect our moral purity as though understanding those who disagree profoundly will make us unclean. Persuasion, or its elegant cousin, deliberation, requires understanding and some level of empathy with those with whom we converse. In other words, we cannot hope to participate meaningfully in deliberation with people whom we believe would soil us if we recognized them as partners in moral inquiry. We have many reasons, therefore, to want to traffic in crude stereotypes that keep those “others” from getting close enough to make us dirty. We can only remain truly moral, truly clean, we fear, if we live without doubt about our own moral probity. Alas, we cannot be certain of our moral superiority if we communicate with the other. Perhaps a soft form of Manicheanism afflicts us all—but with too many of us it provides an all-too-handy excuse for not communicating. But here is the rub: in a democracy, communication is essential. Moral purity is dangerous to the good of fostering a healthy and dynamic form of self-rule.
As a traditionalist, I’ve developed my own critiques of Bush and his policies. The difference is that I am critical because Bush was too morally earnest. His deep belief in abstract rights and his unshakable faith that all humans wish to be free and to live in democracies (or at least should live in democracies) appalls me. I have never doubted that Bush labored over the choices he made and suffered from the moral conundrums that he faced. But through it all, I’ve found both his ontological and moral commitments to be so clear that they allowed him to act out of moral clarity when he ought to have been acting out of a more realistic calculus of costs and benefits to the American people. And so Berube and I could agree on some critiques of the administration’s choices, but because Berube finds the fault in his amorality or his immorality, he is forced to condemn Bush to a place of special moral reproach well outside of his circle. I critiqued mildly Bush’s moral commitments, Berube can only condemn him for not having any moral commitments. I could, as it were, talk with Bush about the differences that separate us—perhaps even persuade—while Berube is duty-bound to rhetorically spit on him.
A righteous hatred of Bush and Cheney only reflects the deepest problem with Berube’s left, it isn’t the problem itself. The problem is that Berube and others on the left (in the context of the argument I’m making here, George Lakoff comes to mind) do not understand what they collectively call the “right.” The misunderstanding goes so deep that most leftists do not even attempt to understand people on the right as they understand themselves. So, when a leftist discusses the moral claims used by those on the right he begins by asserting that their key vocabulary has been “hijacked” or “stolen” from the left. More particularly, the right stole the defining leftist ideals of freedom and equality, attached these linguistic talismans to their “reactionary” agenda and, viola, they came to power.
If the right gained power because its opinion leaders used leftist moral claims and then framed the right-wing agenda in light of these morally rich words, then the task before a leftist is to reclaim the words, to frame properly the issues so that the American people recognize their natural affinity with the left. These assumptions foreclose a serious examination of the moral universe of self-proclaimed conservatives. Even if they have a real moral code, leftists aver, they could not win power without stealing the moral words of the left. This belief makes analysis easy, but at the expense of the most important knowledge for participating meaningfully in American politics.
If leftists believe that the key to gaining political power and then ruling with the support of Kansas depends on becoming more sophisticated than conservative operatives (from here to the end of the essay I will use the label “conservative” to stand in for what I mean by right-wing liberal and what most on the left call the “right”) in linguistically framing their policies, then they cannot govern. Rather than relying on cognitive linguistics, they would do well to reflect on myth and history. Those on the left have no mythos that can compete with the conservative mythos of American history, nature, and purpose. Declaring that leftists own “freedom and equality” and that conservatives have stolen these defining words of American identity is absurd to anyone who spends serious time with thoughtful conservatives. (It seems absurd on the face of it to me to claim that such rich words belong to any one group. Freedom is intoxicating and comes in more forms than any of us can name.) However effective spin-masters are at framing political platforms, developing code during campaigns, and using fear to drive voters to one candidate, those who crafted or who now comfortably inhabit the moral universe of American conservatism are motivated out of deep, often sophisticated, understandings of freedom and equality in the American story. It would be healthy for a leftist to disagree with the conservative account of history, and to challenge conservative moral assumptions, but it is political stupidity to accept that these conservatives are manipulators rather than believers.
The real question is why are their beliefs so powerful. American conservatism, properly understood, has been a sober, even melancholy, disposition. Not any more. Devotion to inherited ways, a belief that the individual develops his real person-hood in the context of deep and historically rooted associations, and a distrust of abstract moral claims—these are not easily assimilated into an American political agenda. Henry Adams, as Berube surely would say, offers no agenda for such a forward-looking people. No, any powerful “conservative” political agenda must be formed out of the liberal raw material of the American experiment—it must be individualist, it must be optimistic, it must be emancipatory, and it must tether teleology and progress. (I hope I haven’t stolen the word “progress.”)
A politically relevant “conservatism” evolved over a span of thirty years leading to the election of 1980. From the beginning, as evidenced in the 1950s issues of National Review, it lacked any systematic ideology. Indeed, if you look close enough, it was philosophically incoherent. But in the early years, in reaction (and what a beautiful word is “reaction”) to communism and a certain species of New Deal liberalism, these new conservatives developed and articulated a powerful defense for freedom as central to the human spirit. This freedom was both the product of thousands of years of human struggle (through the West) AND the fullest expression of human potential. This blending of history and nature allowed conservatives to think of the American cause to be the final product of History—the rich fruit handed down from ancestors. America is special (exceptional) because it is the guardian or protector of the highest outcome of historical development. But this historical accomplishment is fragile—totalitarianism and creeping socialism both, in their own ways, threaten to send America, and therefore the world, into a new dark age.
These conservatives fought so tenaciously because they believed that they stood between Western civilization and barbarism. For believers, this was intoxicating, and it is no accident that so many of the early conservatives had been previously intoxicated by the moral beauty of communism. But so long as conservatism was narrowly focused on freedom, their political influence would be substantial but limited to a supporting role to cold war liberals. In the late 1960s, and through the 1970s, a new generation of thinkers and activists re-formed conservatism to become an equality movement—Conservatism 2.0. In due course, through a process of persuasion, of new experiences (new generations), of re-thinking, a mythos of American progress emerged. The opening part of the Declaration of Independence expressed the defining principle of this nation, founded in accord with the deepest of moral principles, natural rights. The story since the founding, then, has been a struggle to live up to these ideals. Conservatism 2.0 included new groups, excluded some groups previously associated with conservatism (traditionalists and isolationists, for instance), and, when wedded to the preternatural optimism of Ronald Reagan, became a future-oriented, liberationist ideology that was both nostalgic (reclaiming the real America) and progressive.
The complex details, tensions, and even contradictions of Conservatism 2.0 are not important in this context. People like myself, who lament the emergence of equality as a defining moral principle, or who prefer a more historicist understanding of human nature, might disagree with the conservative label or with the obsessive focus on liberation from all non-chosen constraints, but we do not fool ourselves into believing that the mythos is not powerful, seductive, and wonderfully well-suited to the America of the last several decades. Understanding the moral claims that conservatives believe deeply, and express with admirable ambiguity, is a necessary condition for coming to grips with the political reality of contemporary America.
Berube sketches a moral outline for his version of the social-democratic left. He makes his case in normative language and wants the left to work toward a wide variety of policies that improve the nation and the world relative to these moral ideals. But serious progress on this policy agenda, seemingly possible after the election of 2008, requires connecting with the people of Kansas. Berube wants a politically savvy left to take this opportunity and persuade the broad middle of America that the left’s policies are the best expressions of the American self. Drawing from Franklin Roosevelt’s four freedoms, Berube believes that a caring social democracy that protects the vulnerable and that moves closer to international governance rooted in these moral principles is a reasonable expectation.
For Berube’s high moral agenda of a world made just, I detect NOTHING that approaches a story. Conservatism 2.0, however historically thin, nonetheless tells a story of America that allows citizens to play a role in a comprehendible reality. Being American matters to them because it situates them in a particular, understandable, laudable narrative. Who could love something as abstract as humanity—cold, faceless, and, one has to assume, eventually bland? I may not find a story about natural rights and a city on a hill to be sufficiently rich with historical texture to satisfy my needs for roots, but this “conservative” story is amazingly attractive to people who want to believe that their nation’s story has cosmic purpose, and that its flaws are not so much a result of evil as of a well-meaning but naïve people. The problem with the left is not that they critique this story—it is that they have no story of their own that allows the people of Kansas to find a role to play. For this purpose (to say nothing of his great many failings as a historian), Howard Zinn has nothing to offer Americans. Because the left cannot tell a story of America, they cannot govern.
If Berube allows me into his circle, we can talk seriously about freedom from want and from fear, about the dangers of statism, about the way that our competing conceptions of freedom and equality emerge from different conceptions of the human condition. But for now, I am thankful that I could watch a thoughtful leftist appeal for more restrained and more tolerant discussion. Perhaps I would be less thankful if I believed that this more savvy form of leftism could truly engage with the moral imagination of the American middle class. As an outsider to both, I prefer the mythos of Conservatism 2.0 to the moralism of socialist internationalism. At least when the conservative mythos of freedom and equality reigns in the heart of Americans, they will tolerate the likes of Berube and me. That is something.