I want to thank Gabriel Brahm and Politics and Culture not only for putting together this remarkable series of responses to The Left at War, but for reading my book in the first place. This is no pro forma gesture of gratitude on my part: my book has gotten a couple of engaging reviews in the US, and three or four thoughtful reviews abroad (including, apparently, a two-page spread in Norway’s third-largest daily), but by the time these reviews arrived, I had acclimated myself to the thought that The Left at War was going to go down as an unpleasant and largely irrelevant piece of work. So the experience of reading these review essays was slightly surreal.
Some people have remarked, justly, that The Left at War is really two books (though I do not see why this should be cause for complaint in a bad economy: two hardcovers for $30, $19.97 at Amazon!): the first half lays out my positions on Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and my responses to the left’s opposition to each of these wars; the second half explains how I got to the positions I hold, even though this explanation takes us through territory that has very little to do with international relations and just war theory. In the course of writing the book (sometimes a very unpleasant experience, as my friends and family can attest), I worried that the first three chapters would close down any engagement with the second three: surely, I thought, leftists who saw Kosovo as an exercise in NATO militarism and Afghanistan as the distillation of US imperialism are not going to stick around to find out why my reading of Stuart Hall and cultural studies has led me to disagree with them. Conversely, I worried that leftists who largely agreed with me about Kosovo and Afghanistan, and who sought to disentangle Iraq (and our opposition to war in Iraq) from those debates, would not be terribly interested in the fact that I agree with them for reasons that differ markedly from their own, and are based in a tradition of independent British leftism that has no truck with (for example) the current SWP’s apologetics for Islamism as a form of anti-imperialism. Kevin Mattson’s sympathetic review in Bookforum confirmed the latter fear, remarking that the second half amounted to a long footnote in which I repay an intellectual debt. He was right about that. So I am deeply grateful that so many of my readers in this forum have taken my intellectual debts seriously, and have acknowledged that I have tried to behave, even in a bad economy, like a good debtor.
Jeff Bloodworth suggests that The Left at War is not so much a long footnote as a “really, really long breakup note,” and I suppose that’s also true, in a way– though for me the break started in 2002-03, when I began to lose a category of friends I called “friends I finally realized I never really had.” After 9/11, I did not change my beliefs about American history or American foreign policy, and I remain baffled by and disdainful of former liberals who did; indeed, the one phrase for which I am most often cited in the liberal blogosphere is the line “I used to consider myself a Democrat, but thanks to 9/11, I’m really outraged by Chappaquiddick.” What distinguishes me from the “yoostabee” liberals is that nothing that happened on 9/11 compelled me to revisit my opposition to war in Vietnam or US support for death squads in Central America. But surely, I thought at the time, 9/11 was qualitatively different; surely it made sense to try to destroy whatever base of operations its planners and enablers were working from, and to disrupt their terrorist network by both diplomatic and military means. I was genuinely surprised– perhaps naively so– to learn from my not-really-friends on the left that this was precisely the wrong thing to believe, and that even military actions that could be reasonably seen as self-defense-after-the-fact, like the destruction of Tora Bora, were to be denounced in precisely the same terms as the anti-imperialist denunciations of the Vietnam War and support for Central American death squads. A few months later, when ANSWER seized control of the antiwar demonstrations (and, therefore, of their agendas and their lists of speakers), I was genuinely surprised– perhaps naively so– to learn from my not-really-friends on the left that this was no real cause for concern, and that anyone who made it a cause for concern was a traitor or a dupe. (Two of the most addled leftists, Ed Herman and Alexander Cockburn, actually accused me of working with David Horowitz to discredit the antiwar movement. Because, you see, I had taken part in a debate with Horowitz– in which I disagreed strenuously with Horowitz’s claim that the leadership of the antiwar movement discredited the entire movement.) Time and again I found myself in the strangest conversations, two of which are worth recalling now: the first involved my asking a fierce critic of Israeli behavior in the Occupied Territories, after making it clear that I agreed with many (though not all) of his fierce criticisms, what he thought of suicide bombing as a mode of “resistance.” He replied that he did not feel he had the moral authority to condemn such a thing when it is employed by the powerless. I was stupefied by the response, chiefly because it came from someone who clearly felt, on all other occasions, that he had the moral authority to condemn as many as six deplorable things before breakfast. A year later, after I had drafted a petition criticizing ANSWER for preventing Michael Lerner from speaking at the San Francisco antiwar rally in February 2003 (really, for creating neo-Stalinist rules barring anyone from speaking at a rally if they had criticized ANSWER in the past), I was told that I should not have tried to divide the antiwar movement at a critical time. I replied that I had done no such thing, that the people who created that controversy were ANSWER themselves– largely because of their position on Israel/ Palestine.
“But you can’t think about the war in Iraq by isolating it from larger questions in the region, including Israel/ Palestine,” my interlocutor said.
“I’m not trying to isolate Iraq from Israel/ Palestine,” I said. “On the contrary, one of the reasons I opposed ANSWER, and one of the reasons I condemned them as divisive, was that they were so emphatically alienating progressive Jews from the antiwar movement. And I really don’t see how we get anywhere on Israel/ Palestine issues without the support of progressive Jews.”
“Well, Michael,” came the reply I will never forget, “maybe we get there with them, and maybe we get there without them.”
I was far too stunned to ask who “we” were and where “there” might be. But perhaps this was an opportunity worth missing.
I mention these anecdotes now– after deciding to keep them out of The Left at War, confining myself exclusively to print and online material so that the various targets of my critique cannot claim that I misquoted them or took them out of context– for two reasons. The first is to indicate that the phenomenon of which I speak is not a fringe affair, confined to wheat-paste posters and the furthest reaches of the Internet. On the contrary, it constituted part of the fabric of my life while I was writing the book, affecting my relationships with any number of friends (or not-really-friends) and colleagues. (Those relationships, for the record, were sometimes strengthened or renewed, whenever someone told me privately I was saying aloud things that they had only thought in private, and didn’t want to bring up because of the unpleasantness to which they would probably lead.) The second is to try and clarify just whom I’ve broken up with and why.
To take the most important example first: some readers of The Left at War, including, perhaps, some of the participants in this forum, might be surprised and/or dismayed to find that I still find much of value in the work of Noam Chomsky. 1 Paul Hollander is, alas, right about his rhetorical demeanor, his habit of speaking as if even his most tenuous or controversial claims are widely accepted by those who know the material best. That kind of argument-from-feigned-authority, I have found, is very persuasive among Chomsky’s most avid followers, because it confirms them in their sense that Chomskian claims (a) are buttressed by a broad range of informed opinion, albeit a range never represented in the US press, and (b) contested only by apostates and agents (witting or unwitting) of the US propaganda apparatus. And as I’ve made clear in my book, I find Chomsky’s contemptuous treatment of other critics of US imperialism, such as Adrian Hastings (who had the gall to point out that Chomsky’s work on the Balkans is marked by glaring omissions), intellectually appalling. But– and this is critical, given the tenor of some of the replies to my work in this forum– there is no sense in which Chomsky has aligned himself with, or expressed sympathy for, Islamist radicals. The worst of which he can be accused, I maintain, is his impassive “for the first time, the guns have been directed the other way” response to 9/11– and even then, he did not fail to describe the attacks as “horrendous” before launching into the standard litany of US crimes committed between 1812 and 2001. The same is true with regard to the Balkans: Chomsky is far too savvy to fail to condemn Milosevic and his henchmen. The most he will do (though it is, admittedly, far too much) is to give cover and support for people like Diana Johnstone and Ed Herman, who by this point have become professional genocide deniers. But this is not to say that Chomsky’s many critiques of the US and Israel do not have merit; indeed, I believe that people who do say such things are offering curious versions of the Manicheanism I criticize throughout The Left At War. On one side, Chomsky is all but infallible, and criticism of his arguments is grounds for excommunication; on the other side, Chomsky is all but a fraud, and nothing he says can be trusted. Surely there is room– or should be room– on a democratic left for people to say, as I have tried to say, “Chomsky is largely right when it gets down to cases, but his anarchist premises are problematic for any usable assessment of the actions of states, and his all-or-nothing rhetoric leaves no room for people who agree with him only some or part or most of the time.”
Like Russell Berman, I am sometimes tempted to read Chomsky’s rhetoric as evidence of “a deep-seated contempt for the listener– since public opinion, in Chomsky’s view, is never a matter of sincerely debated positions or genuine values but only and always a result of ‘manufacturing’ to manipulate the witless public.” But whenever I am so tempted, I remind myself that Chomsky appeals again and again to the public– not disingenuously, but in the sincere belief that ordinary people, uninterpellated by the Mass Media Matrix and its Five Filters, are capable of forms of goodness and moral complexity that stand in profound contrast to the arational calculations of states. As Gregory Lobo puts it, “he has been for many people and for many years the voice of a certain sort of people-based hope, a not terribly specific but nonetheless ardent proponent of the idea that normal people, if given access to a bit more knowledge, can and do make the world a better place.” And then I remind myself, as this forum has reminded me, that Chomsky has a reading public many powers of ten larger than mine. So I conclude instead that Chomsky has a deep-seated contempt for the new mandarins and the agents (witting or unwitting) of the US propaganda apparatus– and that his supporters’ conviction that that contempt is always deserved, always justified by the perfidy of elites, accounts not only for the depth of Chomskyites’ passions but also for their inability to countenance leftists who agree with Chomsky’s analyses only some or part or most of the time.
With regard to actually existing support for Islamism, the situation in Western Europe seems to me to be far more toxic than it is in the US. Berman is right to speak of “the extent to which the far left in Europe has formed emphatic alliances with Islamist groupings”; but he might have mentioned, as well, the extent to which the right and far-right in Europe have given themselves over to absurd degrees of Islamophobia, seeing in every head scarf or Swiss minaret (all four of them!) monitory harbingers of the Eurabia to come. The US has so far seen very few far-leftists willing to announce emphatic alliances with Islamist groupings (the very worst I can think of, which still stops short of an endorsement of Islamist extremism, was Michael Moore’s dunderheaded celebration of the Iraqi “resistance” as the equivalents of American minutemen), no doubt because there is less resentment of the US in the US than can be found in Western Europe; on the other side, the fact that the US has only recently seen Islamophobic nuttiness on the scale of Oklahoma’s ban on shari’a law or the demonstrations against the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” (also known as the Park51 cultural center) is poignant testimony to the initial success of George W. Bush’s attempts to tamp down outbreaks of Islamophobia on the American right. Now that Bush is no longer the leader of his party, however, the lid is off, and (depending on whether you go by the Pew poll or the Time magazine poll) either 31 or 46 percent of Republicans believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim. We don’t have many outspoken supporters of Islamism in the US, in other words, but we are beginning to cultivate a culture of Islamophobic demagoguery that may yet match that of the European far right.
It would be most gratifying (and most effective, I hope) if that culture of Islamophobic demagoguery were to be challenged by an Augustinian left, and I thank Scott Paeth for coining the term and setting forth its premises. But I want to note for the record that the phrase “dirty fucking hippies,” and the associated claim that the American mass media generally treated Al Gore, Howard Dean, and everyone to their left as DFHs with regard to Iraq, are not mine. They are the work of economist and blogger Duncan Black, one of the early leaders of the liberal blogosphere– who began blogging precisely because of the marginalization of liberals and leftists in public discourse between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. And I want to acknowledge that I agree entirely with Paeth’s caveats about my argument that Islamist radicalism has roots that have little to do with US imperialism:
American actions, such as the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadeq, or its support of settlement expansion in the West Bank, provide a focus and catalyst for Jihadist propaganda, which has no shortage of examples of genuine American perfidy to choose from in attempting to cast us as the villains in its cosmic drama. What’s more, U.S. support for repressive regimes in the region, who for their part attempted to crush reasonable democratic reform movements, pushing dissidents toward Islamic radicalism, has been a contributing factor in the rise of those movements, as well as feeding their anti-American rhetoric.
One might add that the torture of detainees at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram, or Predator drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, are providing plenty of fuel for that fire as well. Still, I agree with Paeth’s account of the “blowback” argument:
It is the failure to recognize the possibility of blowback in our Middle East policy during the past half century that led to the sequence of events by which we now find ourselves deeply embroiled in two pointless and unwinnable wars. Although it is easy to read this argument so as to lay all blame at the feet of the United States, a better understanding of it is as a counsel of prudence and humility in international affairs, rather than the hubristic faith in our ability to control all outcomes that has been demonstrated by U.S. administrations both past and present.
Paeth has convinced me that now is a good time to go and read Neibuhr on such matters– though I suspect that the Manichean response to Paeth’s argument would be something very like Zizek’s response to Arendt, and for the same reasons. Zizek, you will recall, opened Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism by pining for the days when “Leftist radicals dismissed her as the perpetrator of the notion of ‘totalitarianism,’ the key weapon of the West in the Cold War ideological struggle” (2), and when radicals could properly shame their colleagues for taking their distance from totalitarianism: “if, at a Cultural Studies colloquium in the 1970s, one was asked innocently, ‘Is your line of argumentation not similar to that of Arendt?’, this was a sure sign that one was in deep trouble” (2). I look forward to cultural studies colloquia in which people are asked innocently, “is your line of argumentation not similar to that of Neibuhr?” or, even worse, “is your line of argument not similar to that of Paeth?” Because that will certainly shut down criticism of the Manichean left for once and for all.
In response to Gregory Lobo (and Paul Hollander, who deals with Zizek in drive-by fashion), I am not sure what to say about Zizek’s academic celebrity in literature departments. At first I thought it involved something of a bait-and-switch: come for the dazzling Lacanian readings of Hitchcock, stay for the I’m-not-kidding-but-I’m-just-kidding-but-maybe-I’m-not-kidding defenses of the gulag. I might remark that philosophers and theorists with broad, sweeping critiques of the intellectual and political traditions of the West since the days of (a) Kant (b) Christ (c) Socrates have often found sympathetic audiences among literary folk, and often for good reason; thinkers like Nietzsche, Heidegger and Foucault are nothing if not ambitious, and I find people who read them energetically more intellectually engaging and interesting than people who don’t. But then I might also remark that broad, sweeping critiques of the West can go hand in hand with, or perhaps set the table for, bizarre, noxious enthusiasms and profound political misjudgments. I suspect that something of the sort is going on here, and I can attempt a partial explanation for why we in literary studies keep falling in love with these bad boys time and time again. As with Lyotard’s defense of paralogy and critique of Habermasian communicative action, we feel we have a sworn obligation to protect and preserve all the variously innovative, experimental god-knows-what stuff produced by the various avant-gardes of the past 200 years, the cranks and sages speaking a language no one else understands and imagining worlds other than this one. It’s a confusing job, but somebody’s gotta do it. And when I have made this argument in public, suggesting that people in literary studies are especially susceptible to thinking of “be reasonable, demand the impossible” as a cogent political platform, I have been told by Zizek fans that I am engaging in precisely the “liberal blackmail” of which Zizek speaks, shutting down possible alternatives to the liberal-democratic bourgeois dispensation that exercises such hegemony over Western thought. Not at all, I reply. I resonate in sympathy to the argument that the liberal-democratic bourgeois hegemony tries to cast all its competitor ideologies into the outer darkness by painting them as irrational and/or totalitarianism. I am simply pointing out that when Laclau asked Zizek, in so many words, if he wants “to replace liberal democracy by a one-party political system, to undermine the division of powers, to impose the censorship of the press,” Zizek’s reply was the old Situationist slogan. This has its charm for some, I know, but as for me, I am much more willing to consider alternatives to liberal-democratic bourgeois hegemony when I am told what they actually consist of.
In response to Luke Thominet’s thoughtful and eloquent essay on the Iraq war debates, I have only one thing to say: I wish, in retrospect, that in 2002-03 I had written at least one of my critiques of the antiwar left and the liberal hawks in dialogue form– or, better yet, in dialogue with someone on the antiwar left or with one of the liberal hawks. Because Thominet is right, as Packer is right, to insist that “the Iraq War is not an argument to be won or lost; it’s a tragedy”– or, as Thominet rephrases it, “Iraq is not a debate, it is a country; a real place with real people.” I hope it is clear that I have great respect for The Assassin’s Gate, and for Packer’s willingness to revisit his initial, ambivalent support for the Iraq war. But I still want to insist that Packer should have acknowledged that millions of people who opposed that war were thinking of Iraq as a real country with real people, and concluding that a post-invasion Iraq would be even worse for ordinary Iraqis than the containment of Saddam– horrible as that might sound. The contrast with James Fallows is instructive, which is why I juxtaposed The Assassin’s Gate with Fallows’ 2002 Atlantic essay, “The Fifty-First State?” Though Fallows, like Berman, was hesitantly pro-war, he did not fail to interview and give a fair hearing to a wide range of critics who believed that Iraq would be a moral or tactical disaster (or both). I find it impossible to believe that Packer did not read that essay– and yet there is no evidence in The Assassin’s Gate that he did. At the risk of repeating myself (having made this argument in the book), I will confess to being astonished that Packer would write, in 2005, that “the American people never had a chance to consider the real difficulties and costs of regime change in Iraq.” Who knows? Perhaps if ANSWER hadn’t been organizing the demonstrations, it would have been easier to see that the vast majority of demonstrators were (a) unaware that the rally was being organized by the neo-Stalinist fringe and (b) genuinely considering the real difficulties and costs of regime change in Iraq.
With a deep breath, I turn now to my most severe and unsympathetic respondents– first by registering my surprise and delight that Brahm managed to persuade them to read my book at all.
I begin by smiling ruefully at Paul Hollander’s suggestion that I was apparently unaware “that this book is likely to be appreciated only by a small number of readers who are familiar with the somewhat esoteric and sectarian preoccupations and disputes among the many branches of the academic left in this country and Britain.” On the contrary, I was excruciatingly aware that this book is likely to be appreciated only by that small number of readers, which is one reason I have not bothered trying to sell the film rights. And I will confess, as well, to being mildly amused at the apparent befuddlement of conservatives who read The Left At War only to find that it is not about them. By contrast to Brahm, who finds The Left At War a useful (if flawed) attempt to bring the discourses of cultural studies to bear on the world of international relations, Hollander finds the second half of my book pointless or worse. I would be very surprised otherwise; I cannot imagine a plausible universe in which I manage to convince Paul Hollander that the intellectual tradition of Raymond Williams, E. P. Thompson, and Stuart Hall is relevant to “practical politics and social change,” though I wish Hollander had buttressed his dismissal of the field with some practical responses to Hall’s analyses of Thatcherism. As for Hollander’s sense that my chapter on American cultural studies constitutes “apparent support of political correctness,” all I can say is that I abhor wife-beating and stopped engaging in it quite some time ago. I am grateful that Russell Berman read the chapter more carefully, and deftly summarized it thus: “it was the failure of the US academy to achieve a successful reception of Hall’s cultural studies that has condemned it to Chomksian dogmatism.” You don’t have to agree with my account of cultural studies and the intellectual left in the US, of course; it is, after all, an idiosyncratic narrative, and so far as I know I’m the only one narrating it. But it helps if you don’t misconstrue it so badly as to read it as a defense of something called “political correctness.”
Small but important matters, four in number: first, I am not, nor have I ever been, “critical of the recurring comparisons of the United States to Nazi Germany in the pages of The Nation,” largely because there are no such recurring comparisons in the pages of The Nation. Hollander is apparently thinking of my response to Daniel Lazare’s rant on the Michael Medved radio show, in the course of which Lazare managed to compare the U.S. to Nazi Germany unfavorably; but Lazare did not submit that rant to The Nation, nor, I feel safe in saying, would they have published it if he did. Second, in response to Hollander’s question, “sometimes Berube’s critiques of the radical left made me wonder what were their major determinant: was it his rejection of their positions on substantive moral grounds, because they were wrong, or his concern that these utterances damaged the credibility and political influence of the left in general, and the democratic left in particular ‘provide[ing] right wingers with still more fodder’” (26), I can answer simply that I’m not an either/or kind of guy. I do not find it hard to say that substantively wrong positions can damage the credibility and political influence of the left, or that they should be debated both with regard to their wrongness and their political effects. Third, about anticommunism, I fear that Hollander has simply missed my point. He writes:
Elsewhere Berube writes that “the right had hung for decades the albatross of Soviet communism around the necks of anyone who suggested that people’s access to basic social goods should not be dependent on their ability to pay for them…” (187). There are several things wrong with this statement: you did not have to be a right-winger to be critical of supporters of Soviet communism or Soviet communism itself; such supporters were not criticized because they believed that access to basic social goods should not depend on the ability to pay for them, but on account of their whitewashing or ignoring the profound inhumanity of the Soviet system.
Let me try to rephrase that bit about the albatross: for most of the twentieth century, even anti-Communist, democratic American leftists and liberals who believed in things like Social Security and desegregation were tarred as Communists. I cannot fathom why someone as distinguished as Hollander would fail to grasp this point, because it’s pretty elementary stuff. And fourth, Hollander considers it an “overstatement” to say (as I do) “by 2003 the American press, television networks and cable channels had done a most impressive job of mainstreaming even some of the most vicious right-wing pundits and positions and marginalizing even the most tepid forms of liberal dissent” (132). Well, let’s put it this way. Phil Donahue was fired by MSNBC in February 2003 even though his show was the highest-rated program on the channel; the following month, MSNBC hired Michael Savage. If there is a clearer example of the marginalization of tepid liberal dissent and the mainstreaming of a vicious right-wing pundit in the history of human affairs, I am not aware of it. Ordinarily the mainstreaming of vicious right-wing pundits is the job of Fox News, but in the runup to the Iraq War, American media underwent a spasm of Foxification from which they have still not fully recovered. It is all right with me if Hollander wants to disagree about the exact degree of Foxification, but not all right if he wants to deny that it happened.
Ted McAllister opens by marking some boundaries, and noting (correctly) that my book was not intended to persuade him. It is precisely for occasions such as this that I fall back on the Habermasian ideal of reciprocal recognition– but without the Habermasian insistence on orientation toward consensus. I hope McAllister and I can understand each other without agreeing to agree. Specifically, I think McAllister has misunderstood me on two counts, and I’d like to straighten that out if I can. First, McAllister writes:
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.
This is one of only two times McAllister cites me directly, and it offers an important key to how he reads me. Because there is another fleeting reference to Laura Bush earlier in my book, where I write that “it is intellectually dishonest to brush off the question of the fate of Afghan women under the Taliban by mocking Laura Bush’s sudden late-2001 conversion to international feminism.” The critique, clearly, is aimed at people who dismissed Laura Bush’s invocation of the rights of Afghan schoolgirls simply because it came from Laura Bush. I have no doubt that McAllister is morally serious, but I wish he had gotten this part of my argument right. I also wish McAllister had not attributed to me “dozens of assumptions about Bush’s stupidity,” because my book says nothing on this score, and paraphrasing the assumptions of imaginary arguments is not conducive to serious intellectual exchange.
Second, McAllister thoroughly misunderstands my argument about “hijacking” key words and concepts. I am not sure precisely where this misunderstanding originates, because there are no direct citations to work from, but this is what it consists of:
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, voila, they came to power.
As a reading of my book, this is precisely wrong– but it is a powerful reminder of why the lessons of cultural studies are worth learning. Here, the relevant lesson goes something like this. Concepts have no fixed home, no fixed meanings, no necessary correspondence to one political position or another; they are, rather (as we like to say in the cultural studies colloquia), sites of political struggle, articulated to (in Laclau’s terms) a variety of possible positions. This is the basis of my critique of Stuart Hall for the one moment he nodded, forgetting this principle and claiming, with regard to the Falklands War, that Thatcherism had “literally stolen the slogans of national self-determination and anti-fascism out of mouths”; in reply, I said the following (I apologize for the lengthy self-citation, but McAllister’s misunderstanding of my point is so complete that it seems necessary):
It is as if the left can struggle over the meaning of the “nation,” but the right has no business adapting the language of anti-fascism and national self-determination. And it is as if Hall is willing to admit that Thatcherism has a rational basis when it comes to popular dissatisfaction with the welfare state, but no plausible reason whatsoever to oppose Galtieri’s opportunistic seizure of the islands: here, despite everything Hall has shown us about the operations of Thatcherite hegemony, we are in the realm of false national consciousness, where the sheeple are encouraged– if not hypnotized– into repeating the ancient verities: “Mrs T is simply our most-beloved Good Housekeeper,” Hall writes. “Children should be brought up as our parents brought us up. Mothers should stay at home. Tin-pot dictators should be stood up to. These are the grand truths which history and experience teach: what she called, to the Conservative Women’s Conference on the eve of her election victory, the ‘tried and trusted values of commonsense.’ Better than ‘trendy theories’– and all that thinking” (HR 71).
One does not have to support the Falklands War (I did not and do not) to believe that this is a serious mistake on Hall’s part: to lump “tin-pot dictators should be stood up to” with “children should be brought up as our parents brought us up” and “mothers should stay at home” is precisely to leave the language of anti-fascism to the right. (194-95)
So when McAllister writes, “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,” I have to agree– with the caveat that this declaration belongs to a book that I did not write, and that I will not fail to critique when it is written.
Small but important matters, two in number: first, McAllister notes that the word “ravings” is “one of those words that Bérubé uses to mark those who are outside of the circle.” Quite so: the full phrase is “the bloodthirsty ravings of right-wing pundits,” and one of the examples I offer of such ravings is the work of thoughtful conservative Rich Lowry, senior editor of the National Review:
We know the states that harbor our enemies. If only Osama bin Laden and his 50 closest advisers and followers die in the next couple of weeks, President Bush will have failed in a great military and moral challenge of his presidency.
The American response should be closer to something along these lines: identifying the one or two nations most closely associated with our enemies, giving them 24-hours notice to evacuate their capitals (in keeping with our desire to wage war as morally as possible), then systematically destroying every significant piece of military, financial, and political infrastructure in those cities.
If these words do not place Rich Lowry outside McAllister’s circle, so much the worse for that circle. Second, speaking of the National Review, I was struck by McAllister’s account of American conservatism. “A politically relevant ‘conservatism’ evolved over a span of years leading to the election of 1980. From the beginning, as evidenced in 1950s issues of National Review, it lacked any systematic ideology.” But the National Review of the 1950s and 1960s tells a rather different story. On one issue, racial integration, the National Review had a thoroughly systematic ideology: they were agin’ it. I do feel the pain of thoughtful conservatives who have to confront that legacy now, and who have to grapple with what it means that the Republican campaign of 1980 was launched in Philadelphia, Mississippi, with Reagan’s proclamation, “I believe in states’ rights…. I believe we have distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended to be given in the Constitution to that federal establishment.” When, therefore, McAllister writes, “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,” I will not reply that he is “hijacking” or “stealing” terms such as liberationist and progressive. I will simply say he is using them in ways I do not.
Where Bloodworth read The Left At War as a breakup note, Elhanan Yakira reads it as a family squabble, as a kind of contentious yet affectionate squabble between me and Uncle Noam. And then he goes further:
Indeed, the question of how to belong to the family, or what being of the Left means, becomes so essential that it seems to have become the central issue of Bérubé’s venture as a whole. There is thus in his book a typical reversal of the proper order of questioning: We are asked to consider not so much whether something is right or wrong, good or bad, true or false, but what should the Left– the real left that is– think about this or that matter. Once again, this is a typical orthodox way of thinking: orthodox truth precedes all discourse, and is not given to critical scrutiny. The truthfulness of what one says, or believes, is not measured against the hard facts of reality, but against what is supposed to be, in this case, the beliefs of the Left insofar as it is a left.
I am genuinely sorry to hear that someone has gotten this impression from my book. I do not know how it is possible, given the book’s painstaking (and, for some readers, tedious) examinations of claims about the al-Shifa bombing in Khartoum, the temporary interruption of aid convoys to Afghanistan, the effects of Iraqi sanctions, the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation report on Srebrenica, and so forth. But I regret it nonetheless. Likewise, I do not see how someone can read the opening six pages of chapter two, explaining in detail my support for (as well as my reservations about) military action in Afghanistan in response to 9/11, and come away with the conclusion that “instead of the kind of war the US and its allies have waged in Afghanistan, he seems to suggest a ‘police operations’ approach or something of this kind.” But apparently it is possible.
On one count we have a simple yet profound misunderstanding. When I write that Kenneth Roth and Human Rights Watch “decisively slammed the door on any attempt to use the 1988 Anfal (in which 100,000 Kurds were killed) or the suppression of the 1991 Intifada as retroactive grounds for international action,” Yakira thinks I am referring to the first (or second?) Palestinian Intifada; I meant, rather, the 1991 Iraqi uprising (al-Intifada al-Shaabaniya), suppressed by Saddam with inconceivable brutality. I am sorry for the confusion.
As for Gaza, Lebanon, and the West Bank, I am not sure I have any way of convincing Yakira that I have anything useful to say. I am, as he notes, safely ensconced in the placid hills of central Pennsylvania. But I take no comfort in Yakira’s argument that all is quiet on Israel’s northern front. I may be very far from that front, but I have heard the argument before, some years after the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Things were indeed quiet for a while after that operation, but no one will ever persuade me that the events of 1982 were good for Israel in the long run. And that is my concern, as it is Yakira’s: what is good for Israel in the long run. Yakira asks if I would consider Israel a rogue state, and, deciding that I have not sufficiently delegitimized the delegitimizers, indicts me for a “lack of moral courage and intellectual lucidity.” He even challenges me (or any of my friends) to “show me one example where a military operation of Israel was justified.” (I’ve always admired the raid on Entebbe, and I was actually OK with the initial stages of the 1982 invasion until Israel decided to go all the way to Beirut, enable and oversee the massacre at Sabra and Shatila, and unwittingly plant the seeds of an organization called Hezbollah.) I hope Yakira will now return the favor, and write about a couple of Israeli military operations that he considers to have been unjustified.
It seems to me that Yakira’s various litmus tests are diagnostic of the toxicity of so many debates about Israel and Palestine: where Michael McIntyre fulminated against my belief that Israel has the right to defend itself, Yakira fulminates against my inadequate defense of Israel to defend itself. So be it. For the record, then: no, Israel is not a rogue state, and I oppose all academic and cultural boycotts of Israel. But it is increasingly behaving as a garrison state. Its response to criticism of its war in Gaza, continuing through the release of the Goldstone Report and the attack on the Gaza flotilla, suggests that Israel sees all criticism of its conduct as illegitimate. Yakira himself almost goes so far in his response to my reading of Ellen Willis’s essay, “Is There Still a Jewish Question? Why I’m an Anti-Anti-Zionist.” I had written that Willis “does not shy from the question of anti-Semitism in her discussion of the ‘root causes’ of 9/11″; Yakira adds, “although, as he adds immediately– in her ‘criticism of global anti-Semitism [she] did not mute her criticism of Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories.’ It is in fact amazing that addressing the question of ‘global anti-Semitism’ is not what every honest human being should find the most natural thing in the world; and it is amazing that this question cannot be addressed without immediately and apparently unavoidably adding the excuse of ‘not muting the criticism of Israel.’” Yes, it is amazing– and depressing. But let’s think carefully about how we came to this sorry pass, starting from a point (1967, say) at which, as Fred Halliday has noted, Israel enjoyed the broad and unquestioning support of the Western left. In the US, the invocation of global anti-Semitism is used quite often to mute criticism of Israeli policies and practices, which is why American leftists who acknowledge the existence of global anti-Semitism need to make it very clear that they want no part of that dynamic. Moreover, since Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories have enjoyed the support of the American government for the past 43 years, American leftists feel especially obligated to make it clear that their criticism of anti-Semitism and of Israel’s many political enemies does not commit them to support everything Israel does. It is amazing that we have gotten to this point, yes, but here we are. For those of us who care about what is best for Israel in the long run, it is not a good place to be. Perhaps we can agree on that much.
Finally, I turn back to Gabriel Brahm with gratitude for his exceptionally generous reading of my book–and, for good measure, with two closing quibbles. Perhaps my criticism of the Bush-Cheney Administration is “hyperbolic” to some ears, yes. Though when I denounce its policies, I am not engaging in “ad hominem” argument. Saying “Bush is a smug frat boy and Cheney has a distinct resemblance to Voldemort” is ad hominem. Saying “the Administration instituted torture and indefinite detention as US policy, embraced a radical understanding of the executive branch that effectively undermines the separation of powers, and created a propaganda apparatus to sell its ‘War on Terror’” is not. And it would have been nice to have the opportunity to respond to a critic more friendly to the Manichean left, too. Someone who could properly take me to task for not having an adequate response to neoliberalism or a compelling account of how a Walzerian defense of the social welfare state can avoid the pitfalls of nationalism. When I think of my book’s weaknesses, that’s what I think of first. But these nine essays offer challenges and expose weaknesses that had not occurred to me, and I have learned much from them. For that, too, I am deeply grateful.
For related reasons, I refuse to use the term “anti-American” to describe either Chomsky or members of the Manichean left. No doubt some of them are motivated, to some extent, by some form of opposition to the United States. But in the United States, the term operates chiefly to suppress debate (unsurprisingly, and regardless of whether its user intends it this way): in mass media, no “anti-American” intellectuals or activists are invited to discuss American affairs. Outside the United States, it confuses legitimate, principled opposition to American foreign policy with legitimate, opportunistic, resentful, or fundamentalist opposition to American cultural hegemony. And, of course, it forecloses on the question of when “anti-Americanism” is an altogether appropriate response to a state of affairs. I know that when my government is napalming villages or helping death squads murder priests and nuns (including American clergy!), then I count myself among the ranks of the anti-Americans. But my opposition to these things is an opposition to actions, not to entities.