Writing in the pages of Dissent in 2005, noted political scientist Andrei S. Markovits identifies a two-ply composite “litmus test” of left political identity in recent times: knee-jerk opposition to the United States and Israel. Since 1989/90, as Markovits observes,
[a] new European (and American) commonality for all lefts—a new litmus test of progressive politics—seems to have developed: anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism (though not anti-Semitism, or at least not yet). I cannot think of two more potent wedge issues that define inclusion and exclusion on the left today. In a hierarchy of key items defining what it means to be left in contemporary Europe and the United States—pro-choice, abolition of the death penalty, equality in marital arrangements and official recognition of gay and lesbian couples by the state; progressive income tax; economic and social justice; support for third world claims against the rich first world; multilateralism as opposed to unilateralism; legalization of marijuana; and on and on—opposition to Israel and America figure at the very top. If one is not at least a serious doubter of the legitimacy of the state of Israel (never mind the policies of its government) and if one does not dismiss everything American as a priori vile and reactionary, one runs the risk of being excluded from the entity called “the left.” There has not been a common issue since the Spanish Civil War that has united the left so clearly as has anti-Zionism and its twin, anti-Americanism. The left divided, and divides, over Serbia, over Chechnya, over Darfur, even over the war in Iraq. There are virtually no divisions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and over the essence of the United States. If one has anything positive—or even non-derogatory—to say about the United States or Israel, one always needs to qualify it with a resounding “but.”
Indeed, as both conservatives and thoughtful liberals like Markovits have long recognized, there has been for half-a-century now a tendency for the left in this country to descend to the level of a largely reactive “adversary culture.” At least since the days when Lionel Trilling first coined that phrase, in 1965, there has existed an antinomian “left” counter-culture, committed above all to an “adversarial” stance requiring initiates to profess contempt for the general character of America, while habitually protesting the specific actions of its government.
More recently, as Markovits was among the first to clearly delineate, Israel joined her chief ally as what he calls the “twin” designated devil in the melodramatic scenario of a global adversary culture. Indeed, by 2007, Markovits was seeing not just opposition to Israel and the U.S., but indeed anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism as a pair of “twin brothers.” Thus, while perhaps not a “required” part of the left “ID check” that Markovits isolates above (“at least not yet”), anti-Semitism is by no means absent either from far-left political discourse today—as many observers agree, anti-Zionism frequently crosses over the line into anti-Semitism when double-standards that selectively demonize a nation are applied toward the end of delegitimizing the Jewish State in particular (either singled out for opprobrium alone among U.N. member-states, or first and foremost). Furthermore, concerned scholars have recently documented that anti-Semitism is indeed a serious and growing problem on some North American college campuses—which are generally cultural-left strongholds. Something about 9/11 also seemed to bring back a hoary tradition of conspiracy thinking that puts Jews at the dimly lit center of every big event: In the wake of the U.S. response to the historic attacks, as Russell Berman observes, “on both sides of the Atlantic” we heard “the highly charged accusation that ‘neocons,’ a term used increasingly as a code for politically conservative Jews, were engaged in a ‘cabal’ (another term with an innuendo of a Jewish conspiracy) to manipulate Western foreign policy.” From a “strange new perspective,” popular throughout the years of the George W. Bush presidency, “the enemy ceased to be the perpetrators of 9/11 [and became] the advocates of a preventative strategy against future assaults.” Chillingly, since “Islamists had attacked the West, Jews became suspect.” But neocons or no neocons, as Robert Wistrich has shown, in his most magisterial study of a most dismal subject, the hard left—and not only the far right—has its crazy, obsessive problem with Jews.
September Song: the Left After 9/11
Thus, the absurdity of the crude tests of left fortitude espied by Markovits—measured by the willingness to stand mainly for standing-up against “American imperialism” and “Zionist aggression”—became even more painfully evident after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Metaphysically committed as many were to unearthing the supposed “root causes” of every problem (with recourse to tired etymology, a part of what it means to be “radical”), some on the left could not help but automatically blame the self-evident victim of those attacks for in effect provoking them. The same “rationalist naïvete” that was being used, for about a year by then, since late September of 2000, in order to excuse the lethal targeting of what would eventually add up to many hundreds of innocent Israeli civilians (as well as Palestinian “collaborators”) in the Second Intifada, would now apply also to Israel’s most visible and loyal supporter, in what some wished to see as a “Global Intifada.” Twins indeed! To wit: When anyone commits a suicide-attack against you, it must be your fault for making them choose such a desperate strategy. After all, what other logical, rational explanation could there be, to make sense of a hate that destroys its comparatively weaker bearers, just so as to strike, horrifically yet relatively feebly, at the much stronger object of its impotent obsession? The assumption seemed to be: nobody hates destructively, for their own complex set of internal reasons/motives; or envies; or enjoys revenge; or embraces death pathologically; or systematically indoctrinates, organizes and recruits (often young) martyrs; or pays-off their families. They must “hate us for good reasons.”
The obscenity (and empirical falsity) of such shallow reasoning—at a time when others were realizing that we faced nothing less than a renewed “totalitarian” threat to democracy and human rights, in the guise of radical Islamism—had brought the left to an impasse, or perhaps turning point. The crisis of the post-9/11 left arrived in the form of a question: Had the anti-American, anti-Israel left, in the age of mass-murder terrorism, finally discredited leftism per se, by going so far as to associate itself in various ways and to varying degrees with Islamic-fascist jihad—or could there be a more nuanced and decent left, one that stood against totalitarian reaction and murder (even when the victims were well-fed Americans, pampered Europeans, or Jewish Israelis)? As Michael Walzer put it in 2002, also in Dissent,
The radical failure of the left’s response to the events of last fall raises a disturbing question: can there be a decent left in a superpower? Or more accurately, in the only superpower? Maybe the guilt produced by living in such a country and enjoying its privileges makes it impossible to sustain a decent (intelligent, responsible, morally nuanced) politics. Maybe festering resentment, ingrown anger, and self-hate are the inevitable result of the long years spent in fruitless opposition to the global reach of American power. Certainly, all those emotions were plain to see in the left’s reaction to September 11, in the failure to register the horror of the attack or to acknowledge the human pain it caused, in the schadenfreude of so many of the first responses, the barely concealed glee that the imperial state had finally gotten what it deserved.
Moreover, as the foremost conservative critic of anti-Americanism, Paul Hollander, likewise observed, in an essay first published in The National Interest at around the same time (also in 2002), “The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, provide a new vantage point for examining the evolution and current condition of the American adversary culture” (The Only Superpower 203). Thoughtful liberals and conservatives were in agreement. Something was wrong with “the left” and the time had come to say so—even for those, like Bernard-Henri Levy, in France, and Michael Berube, in the U.S., who continued to think of themselves as very much “of the left.” Any “decent” left, it seemed, would have to start by acknowledging, and distancing itself from, the “actually existing” one.
Toward this end, Markovits and I surveyed, in 2007-08, in a series of articles for the short-lived but influential British social-democratic journal, Democratiya, what we provisionally labeled then a “post-left.” We were confirmed in our sense that some sort of convenient reifying tag was necessary to mark the implosion of the postmodern (relativist, anti-Enlightenment), postcolonial (anti-Western, Third Worldist), post-Marxist (anti-Empiricist, Foucauldian), post-911 (anti-Semitic, pro-Islamist) and post-Zionist (dystopian) “left,” when around the same time none-less-than BHL himself referred at length, in a similar vein, to what he dubbed a “right-wing left” and thus an “oxymoronic Left.” Pointing to the defense of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein “and his so called secularism” by some in France and Britain, and singling out such notable examples as “Alain Badiou’s writings on Kosovo or Judaism” and “Jean Baudrillard’s text about the September 11th attacks,” Levy announced that “the hypothesis of [his] whole book,” Left in Dark Times, was that what we finally had come to was a “progressivism without progress,” or in other words “pointless radicalism.”
Versatile Complaints: The Left at War (with Itself)
Berube’s important book of 2009, The Left at War, in turn starts out pondering “what to call this left.” Indeed, at the extreme fringe of “angry anonymous trolls” bashing out “Internet polemic” (although this contingent turns out to include also academics, who should know better), he believes “what ought to be challenged…is the claim of some of these fellows to any left at all.” He considers the moniker “far left,” but this “leaves in place the idea that this left’s evasiveness with regard to tyranny and genocide belong ‘on the left’ in any sense whatsoever”; neither will “radical left” do either, since he “has no desire to criticize radicalism tout court”; likewise “anti-imperialist left” won’t do, since he “has no desire to undermine anti-imperialism,” and because he—rightly, in my view—discerns that “much of this left uses the rhetoric of anti-imperialism as a cloak for something much less admirable.” Then what about “conservative left,” “reactionary left,” or “academic left,” he ponders? No, “none of these seems right,” the author muses, and instead “adopt[s] the term ‘Manichean left,’” for this left’s unwillingness to engage in normal processes of persuasion and conciliation aimed at winning the consent of populations—or, in his preferred Gramscian vocabulary, they are resistant to participating effectively in struggles for “hegemony.”
This terminology makes sense, for the crux of the matter to Berube’s eye is that these new Manicheans prefer to think in terms of stark categories such as “propaganda” (Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman) or “ideology” (Slavoj Zizek is the most sophisticated proponent of this model mentioned), with the implication being always one of some kind of “false consciousness” at work. There are those who know and are good (they’re the “real” left, whatever you decide to call it), and then there is everyone else. In place of this disabling “Manichean” assumption that truth and virtue can and must be separated so readily and absolutely from falsehood and evil, Berube recommends a reexamination and a return to the influential neo-Gramscian work of Stuart Hall, which allows for a more messy and impure engagement with contingency and contestation as basic to politics, understood to be a perpetual fight within civil society to define and shape public opinion. The popularity in recent years of such notions of “agonistic democracy”—among not only devotees of Cultural Studies but also, in political theory, followers of Hannah Arendt—should in principle at least make Berube’s argument for “hegemony” essentially palatable to many who might wish to join him on a post-Manichean, or as he calls it “democratic left” (13 and passim). Whether or not they will do so in fact remains an open question, subject to other factors besides reasonable and convincing argument.
Hence Berube (onetime student of Richard Rorty and now, in this book, inheritor of his late teacher’s mantle, as a superbly well-informed, wide-ranging and genial left-critic of the left) joins the company of lucid left-leaning liberals (viz. social democrats) such as Walzer and Markovits—committed to most of what used to be understood as “left” values, but dismayed of late by the failures of “the left at war.” Indeed, the book in many ways reads as both an affirmative answer to Walzer’s question about the possibility of a decent left, and at the same time an unblinkered exploration of Markovits’s astute mapping of the depressing terrain on which any such answers must be ferreted out. As such, Berube does a double service: he both ruthlessly cleans house and, once that’s done, unapologetically takes stock. The result is to open up a newly invigorated discussion among serious people that cuts across conventional lines of left and right.
But can there be a decent “democratic” left today?
Berube starts the search by first palpitating three key pathologies of the post-left, as I call it, or “Manichean left,” as he prefers: “postcolonial bad conscience” (what Pascal Bruckner has lately termed “Western masochism” in thrall to the “tyranny of guilt”); counter-cultural trendiness (an even less serious version of what used to be called “infantile leftism”); and an irrational aversion to the institutions of modern, liberal democracy (in effect a reactionary-left conservatism, bound weirdly to ultra-vague utopian visions of “alternative” systems nobody is capable of identifying) (1-5). In turn, each of these underlying chronic conditions presents itself in a variety of more acute symptoms. Three deserve to be emphasized.
First, postcolonial guilt registers in the chastened epistemology of “cultural relativism” (3), according to which no mere Westerner has the right to criticize, much less condemn or take action against, what are called blandly “other cultures.” Hence, no intervention in another sovereign country’s affairs is ever justified—no U.N. sanctioned “duty to protect,” not even to stop genocide or prevent terrorism. Even though, when you think about the culturalist logic, we too, after all, have culture. We too should presumably be entitled to act in keeping with our “cultural values,” shouldn’t we? If, in other words, “it’s a part of your culture” to attack us (or to mutilate women’s bodies or set them on fire, or deny gay people human rights, or persecute Jews, or impose dictatorship), then “it’s a part of our culture” to oppose you in whatever ways we judge necessary and likely to be effective. You want to massacre people and impose theocracy because of undiscussable “cultural differences”? Fine, let us each follow his/her culture then! We want to stop you. But in fact, for Berube’s Manichean post(colonial) left, only other people’s cultures are cultures worthy of respect. As he points out, Manichean reasoning leads some to the conclusion that, “the enemy of my enemy may turn out to be my friend, even if ‘my enemy’ is the American right and their enemies include radical Islamists” (3). Here again Berube joins others who see this drift toward sympathy for Islamism as a breaking-point, if not a turning-point, for the left.
Second, the narcissistic politics of countercultural identity-formation (maintaining the fantasy of outsider status at all costs) means the post-left gets “uncomfortable whenever its ideas win the consent of more than a tiny fraction of the public.” For these counter-elitists, therefore, there is in fact no reason to seek to persuade large numbers of one’s fellow citizens by the means that are available in our society to do so, because the Beautiful Soul by definition sees “popular politics as a game rigged by corporations and the process of winning popular consent as a form of ‘selling out.’” Berube perceptively notes that this amounts not so much to a set of specifiable beliefs as it does a “mode of belief, a way of believing”: the form of truth is always a scandal or a conspiracy or a secret knowable only by the self-marginalized (3). Another word for this kind of pseudo-sophisticated knowingness is cynicism: If it’s widely believed, it has to be false. If it’s shocking, it’s at least a candidate for hidden reality or suppressed fact of the matter. The Elect see through the “necessary illusions” that seduce the damned who surround them; that’s how they know they’re “saved.” Which raises the question: With regards to illusions—“necessary” for whom and for what? Perhaps beneath an apparently self-serving attitude lies the fear of being taken-in, taken advantage of, or caught in a naïve belief—the insecure attachment to a compensating image of oneself as clever and therefore “safe” from the confusion and uncertainty that attends modern life. Or perhaps the enjoyment of this kind of exaggerated self-love is its own reward. In any case, Berube here identifies another self-defeating anti-political habit of mind visible on the problematic left, one as proof against swaying many people to one’s cause as is support for radical Islam’s “critique” of corporate capitalism.
And third, the latter is easier to entertain when one rejects a priori as oppressive and worthless the institutions of liberal democracy that so-far accompany capitalism in the West. Moreover, being “against” liberalism/capitalism as we know it is, in Berube’s words,
a supple and versatile complaint: on the one hand it can be launched from anywhere, because the complaint never has to specify just what kind of society should replace the boring, procedural liberal democracy that constrains us; on the other, it can be mobilized to any end, even—at an extreme—to provide cover for profoundly anti-liberal forms of government in the Islamic states or in the developing world. (4)
Taken together with Western masochism and the need to feel a part of an isolated “in” group, the very unempirical presumption (replacement for religious faith?) that ours has simply got to be the worst-of-all-possible worlds (or an inverted American exceptionalism?) feeds what Berube calls “Manichean habits of mind,” stark good-versus-evil thinking that has some strange results.
For example, as Berube reminds: The post-left argued that Bush was worse than Bin Laden and those murdered on 9/11 deserved their fates. It compared Bush—unfavorably!—with Hitler, and lauded Ba’athist factions killing American servicemen and women as “Iraqi maquis” (supposedly similar to French resistance fighters in WW II). It voiced support for Saddam, Ahmadinejad, Milosevic, and denounced both Israel and (in the words of a Monthly Review editor, cited by Berube) “establishment Jews.” It entertained the most daft conspiracy theories (26-34).
Getting the Conversation Going: Cult Studs Meets IR & FP
In response to these and other travesties, Berube aspires “to bring the history of cultural studies to bear on questions of U.S. foreign policy and international relations” (9). It’s a tough thing to do, so it’s rarely done. It requires competence outside one’s discipline, and curiosity about the world. But it’s also necessary and important, so that discussions about the state of the actual world we share are not allowed to become so narrowly specialized that the disciplines do not talk to one another and the “big picture” (or what we might call the ultimate “referent,” the reality of our lives) is lost. In this rare feat of recovering the life-world for students of the humanities, he undoubtedly succeeds. Though some members of the English department might balk at the intrusion of “real” politics—actual events, death tolls, geography, names and dates, proposals for action and counterproposals—into their sanitized world of the “rhetoric” and “representations” of the political, Berube insists on giving equal weight to both signifier and signified. He not only argues about methodology, in other words, or for his preferred model of Cultural Studies (Stuart Hall’s early work). He also argues—with Paul Berman, Tony Blair, Nick Cohen, Bill Clinton, Thomas Frank, George Galloway, Todd Gitlin, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Ignatieff, Alan Johnson, Robert McChesney, George Packer, Daniel Pipes, Martin Peretz, Richard Perle, Ronald Reagan, Edward Said, Amartya Sen, Michael Walzer, Ellen Willis (with whom he mostly agrees), and many others—about states of affairs and the values we should risk our lives for. While such combining of methodological rigor and genuine philosophical interest with real-world contemporary politics is not unheard of in the humanities, this kind of well-informed “political criticism” is yet rare enough (sadly), and rarely done as well.
Moreover, if there can be a “decent left” in the “only superpower,” Berube is it. For his values are our values: “equality and freedom” (as the conclusion to his book is titled). We can of course, and must, disagree about how to interpret these terms in specific situations; but we must never abandon them, nor give up on civil society’s endless debate. Toward this goal, there are no sacred cows, everything is up for discussion in Berube’s writing. True, he expresses freely, and even sometimes loosely airs, his own exaggerated dislike of the “Bush-Cheney administration,” calling it “vile” and glibly categorizing its mistakes as “atrocities” and mislabeling its constitutional outlook (defended in print by no less reputable a political-philosopher than Harvey Mansfield) “totalitarian.” Their “crimes” reportedly “beggar description” and render them “the worst president and vice president in U.S. history” (5-6). But such hyperbolic ad hominems are uncharacteristic of him; atypical of his generous, reasonable, sane and balanced mind; and not to be taken too seriously in the scheme of things (compared to what’s distinctively important about his work), in my opinion.
At his best—and he is most often at his best, in his latest, extraordinary book—Berube’s The Left at War challenges all of us, by example, to make careful arguments (even in response to those we disagree with!), examine evidence, and weigh alternatives without either fear of stigmatization as “un-PC” or giving up on principle either. It is an exercise in “connected criticism,” by a gifted critic—connected both to the academic field of Cultural Studies and his country and the world community of which the latter is a part. Unlike purists and fanatics of all stripes, he’s willing to talk—or, as Rorty would have put it, committed to “keeping the conversation going.” In so doing, missteps are unavoidable: Berube’s mainly judicious colloquy occasionally veers off toward melodramatic partisan fancy, as when we are informed—in the spirit of those heady days of Barack Obama’s historic election victory—that not only are Republican policies being “decisively repudiated” but that “the tide has finally turned throughout the hemisphere, and the right is now on the defensive” (1). For the most part, however—the vast majority of an erudite, timely, courageous and inventive exercise in the genuinely interdisciplinary study of politics and culture—Berube admirably sticks to his own maxim, announced in a previous book, of 2006, What’s Liberal About The Liberal Arts?
Because I cannot have and do not seek unanimity in political and cultural matters…, I believe that the liberal ideal consists in engaging my most stringent interlocutors, so long as we share an underlying commitment to open-ended rational debate. This means that I am open to all manner of reasonable challenges to my beliefs with regards to abortion, affirmative action, taxation and public-sector spending, stem-cell research, disability law, feminism, international relations, nationalism and citizenship, love, hate, war, and peace.
Amen, brother! And two cheers for the decent, democratic left. For what better answer could there be to the “litmus testers” and ID-checkers, of the Manichean left—or right?
I wish to thank Gregory Lobo and Forrest Robinson for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay. Any mistakes they didn’t catch are mine.
Markovits, Andrei S. “The European and American Left Since 1945.” Dissent (Winter 2005). Web. Accessed December 10, 2010.
Markovits, Andrei S. Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007. See especially the chapter “‘Twin Brothers’: European Anti-Semitism and Anti-Americanism” (150-200).
The so-called “3-D Test” is Natan Sharansky’s. See his “3D Test of Anti-Semitism: Demonization, Double Standards, Delegitimization,” in Jewish Political Studies Review 16:3-4 (Fall 2004). Web. Accessed December 10, 2010.
See “Contemporary Antisemitism in Higher Education: Manifestations, Sources, and Responses,” a statement by the participants of “Contemporary Antisemitism in Higher Education,” a workshop convened at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, July 26 – August 6, 2010. Web. Accessed December 10, 2010. See also Kenneth L. Marcus, “A Blind Eye to Campus Anti-Semitism?” Commentary (September 2010). Web. Accessed December 10, 2010.
Berman, Russell A. Freedom or Terror: Europe Faces Jihad. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2009. 70.
Wistrich, Robert. A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad. New York: Random House, 2010. Left-wing “progressive” anti-Semitism, as Wistrich observes, is a growing problem: “The same radical Left that foams at the mouth at the very mention of Israel/Palestine has had little difficulty in closing its eyes to the religious and gender apartheid in Islam, the murderous crimes of such Communist leaders as Stalin, Mao, Kim Il Sung, and Pol Pot, not to mention the mass murders in Africa from Idi Amin’s Uganda in the 1970s to Rwanda over a decade ago, and Sudan today. While real massacres are ignored, a huge propaganda effort continues to be invested globally in pillorying Israel as a perpetrator of genocide. This far transcends the Left since it also involves the United Nations, the Arab states, the Muslim world, nongovernment organizations, and parts of the Western media who black out Israeli victims of suicide bombers, even as they rationalize Islamist and Palestinian terrorism. To the extent that anti-Semitism is even acknowledged as a problem, its intensity in the Muslim and Arab world is played down or completely ignored. The prevailing concept of anti-Semitism as the exclusive property of the fascist Right, a notion especially popular on the Far Left, seems permanently stuck in a seventy-year-old time warp. No less outdated is the liberal assumption that victims of racist discrimination (including Palestinians, North African Arabs, blacks, and other immigrants) can never be anti-Semitic. This is manifestly contradicted on a daily basis by the evidence of streets” (57-8 emphasis added).
The term “rationalist naïvete” is Paul Berman’s. See his Terror and Liberalism (New York: Norton), 2004. 152.
Hollander, Paul. The Only Superpower: Reflections on Strength, Weakness, and Anti-Americanism. New York: Rowan and Littlefield, 2009. 206. Subsequent reference to this edition appears cited in the text.
Walzer, Michael. “Can There Be a Decent Left?” Dissent (Spring 2002). Web. Accessed December 10, 2010.
See Andrei Markovits and Gabriel Brahm, “Cosmopolitanism vs. the Post-Left,” Democratiya (Spring 2008). Web. Accessed December 10, 2010. See also my “The Odyssey of the Post-Left,” Democratiya (Summer 2008). Web. Accessed December 10, 2010. And see my “The Concept of the ‘Post-Left’: a Defense,” Democratiya (Winter 2008). Web. Accessed December 10, 2010.
Levy, Bernard-Henri. Left in Dark Times: a Stand Against the New Barbarism. New York: Random House, 2008. 81.
Berube, Michael. The Left at War. New York: New York UP. 6-7, 25. Subsequent references to this edition appear cited in the text. Incidentally, Berube thanks, in the book’s “Acknowledgments,” Professor Matt Burstein (of University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown’s Philosophy Department) for suggesting the term “Manichean left” (vii).
Bruckner, Pascal. The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010.
Here I paraphrase Peter L. Berger’s reply to the Cultural Relativist (his example is sati in India under British rule). See Berger’s “Between Fundamentalism and Relativism,” The American Interest (September/October 2006), 9-17.
I explore some of these questions, in an examination of one notable instance of Manichean left psychology, in my “Understanding Noam Chomsky: a Reconsideration,” Critical Studies in Media Communication, 23:5 (December 2006), 453-461.
The term “connected critic” is Michael Walzer’s. See his The Company of Critics: Social Criticism and Political Commitment in the Twentieth Century (New York: Basic Books), 2002. Xviii and passim.
Berube, Michael. What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and ‘Bias’ in Higher Education. New York: Norton, 2006. 22.