For Christopher Hitchens—the Left at War with Himself
What follows are nine essays inspired by Michael Berube’s book of 2009, The Left at War (NYU Press), prefaced by Nick Cohen’s shot at dealing in brief with some of the same issues, which he takes on at greater length in his book of 2007, What’s Left? (Harper Perennial). Our interview with Berube was conducted in light of his reading of these pieces, and his own piece—a “response to the responses,” titled “The Left at Bay”—which comes after.
When we first conceived of an issue of Politics & Culture devoted to evaluating, weighing, assessing, appreciating and critiquing Berube’s latest—a book we believe to be of major significance, for a multiplicity of reasons, which this special double-issue of P&C spells out—our ambitions were mighty.
We’d get Christopher Hitchens—after all he defined the left at war (with itself!), if anyone did. Sadly, our recent conflagrations’ most brilliant and controversial public intellectual was both ill and a bit sick of the subject, it sounded like, when we reached him—nonetheless, he graciously wrote back both to say no-thanks and encourage. We humbly dedicate what follows to him, a great man in an age of mere persons. For another take on the “left at war” question, we strongly recommend the indispensible anthology of his war-time writings paired with those of his interlocutors, compiled by Simon Cottee and Thomas Cushman (eds.), Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq, and the Left (NYU 2008). We confess that it left us first shaken, then stirred, and finally sobered.
We’d get the last of the NY Intellectuals, Paul Berman—whose landmark book, Terror and Liberalism (Norton 2004), had done so much to shape debates, and events, and whose latest, The Flight of the Intellectuals (Melville House 2010), promised to be equally as significant for the battle of ideas yet to come. We got the Brooklyn sage, indeed, to write from a sojourn in Paris—reporting that he was occupied with things over there, and wishing us bon chance. We’d get the iconoclastic author of Freedom or Terror: Europe Faces Jihad (Hoover 2010), Russell Berman—and we did! We’d invite the eminent sociologist of left dysfunction, Paul Hollander—he accepted! We’d ask one of Israel’s top philosophers, whose incendiary must-read text, Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust (Cambridge 2010), has been in Israel at the center of debates (which it also is helping to redefine), over what it means to be “left” in that context—Elhanan Yakira; and he agreed as well. We were on a roll.
We’d ask the notorious, never-nebulous Nick Cohen—author of 2007’s cause célèbre, What’s Left? (Fourth Estate)—and he sent us something related, which we could use if we wanted…. Well, okay; cool. It’s good stuff! If anyone knows how to talk about “what’s left” nowadays—and what’s not—it’s him. His own trenchant comments on Berube’s “Manichean left” provide a remarkable prolegomena to what follows.
Meanwhile, as we were surveying the British landscape, we naturally thought of Alan Johnson—the force behind the short-lived but influential social-democratic journal, Democratiya (now merged with its American older cousin, Dissent); but he was writing his own much-anticipated book and made “no promises.” We promise not to hold it against him—and look forward to the book, eagerly. Speaking of Dissent, the American liberal political scientist, Andy Markovits, offered us sage advice, but that was all—for he was occupied illuminating the politics of sport (in his latest on the subject, Gaming the World: How Sports Are Reshaping Global Politics and Culture [Princeton 2010]), while we were bearing down on the dismal sport of politics, in part guided by his seminal essay, “The European and American Left Since 1945” (Dissent 2005).
We wanted a discussion that was ecumenical—not hermetic, as too many debates internal to cultural studies, or any subfield, can be. So, although we couldn’t resist trying to interest the estimable Michael Ryan (maybe he’ll take an interest in what we produced, we hope), we determined in advance not to focus on the cult studs establishment—although, and in part precisely because, the focus was to be on Michael Berube, one the discipline’s most respected leaders. What about Peter Minowitz, then, who had just defended Leo Strauss (of all people) from charges hurled, as a virtual matter of course, by many among the “left at war,” in his sensational and closely reasoned tome, Straussophobia (Lexington 2009)? He at first kindly agreed, and we were delighted; but unanticipated family obligations unfortunately prevented his participation. We wish him well. And while we were cruising the West Coast, listening for voices not congenitally hostile to the much-demonized Strauss, for a change of pace if nothing else—what about finding out what the original mind of the self-described “bohemian conservative,” intellectual historian and professor of Public Policy, Ted McAllister, might do with Berube’s book? We’re pleased to report—we did. So now so can you.
Progressive theologian Scott Paeth argues from the Midwest for an “Augustinian left,” to thwart the excessively dualistic us-versus-them, we-the-spotless-versus-them-with-dirty-hands, “Manichean left” (the main target of Berube’s critique), who tend to concentrate on the coasts. His persuasive argument almost made one of us want to convert (almost). Gregory Lobo, writing from Latin America, argues that Berube is more Marxist and more materialist, not less, than some who—like Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou—loudly claim the mantle. While Gabriel Brahm fitted Berube’s “Manichean left” into his own schema and terminology for identifying what he prefers to call the “post-left”—or the left that sold its soul after 1989 to associate with any pseudo-revolutionary force in town, even anti-Semitic Islamism. By contrast, Jeff Bloodworth stands up for an invigorated liberal-left, and he’s got the historical chops to prove his point—the extremists and fanatics don’t own the left, they never have. Luke Thominet too, makes this clear, in his judicious balancing of the pros and (neo)cons of war.
But most of all, we thought—what if Michael Berube himself participated, reading and responding to our transdisciplinary critiques, culled from across the political spectrum, and did a follow-up interview? He generously agreed to both!, and (despite the crush of Finals Week’s grading and the rigors of the Holiday Season) the stimulating results are a fascinating, essential part of what follows. We wish to here formally thank him for making this project possible. Were it not for his infectious love of conversation, discussion, reasoned debate and genial disagreement—as it comes across in the truly liberal and genuinely democratic style of his prose—we never would have thought of the idea. Were it not for his gracious sharing of his time and energy, it never would have happened.
What follows, thus, is a set of essays gathered in hopes of adumbrating how a more relevant left might become less “Manichean” and impotently moralizing, more genuinely democratic and properly political. Our hope, in other words, is similar to—as we understand it—that which inspired the book these essays respond to. For that book, and our call which resulted in the essays that follow, stem from a shared dissatisfaction with the fact that left “theory” seems to have opted somewhere along the line for the easiest of moves—self-marginalization, and what Richard Rorty calls somewhere “self-mockery and self-disgust.” A left like that, he predicted long ago, addicted to the “need to stay as angry as possible,” would inspire few, and soon become an object of ridicule. Berube, following in his one-time teacher’s footsteps (although not uncritically so), initiates a more truly secular—post-Politically Correct—discussion about this world that we are in, not understood blindly as the best of all possible worlds, save for a few miscreants, but not as an unalloyed debacle either (Manicheans take note). It is an attempt—perhaps quixotic given the long history of left internal strife—to reimagine a left that seeks to contribute to the building of a better world on the basis of this one. We found this to be an inspiring idea, and wondered how others might feel.
Toward a Post-Manichean Left: Five Imperatives for Self-Overcoming
In hopes of finding out—and to conclude these prefatory remarks (our special double-issue of Politics & Culture devoted to Berube’s book awaits!)—we feel inspired as well to take one more step forward, and proffer a few brief notes on what we, the editors, take away from this encounter. We stress that these are not Berube’s words but ours. Nor do we imply agreement on these statements (although we would welcome it) between us and the other contributors to this volume. We do hope, however, that readers of this journal special-issue might find in the articles collected here some good reasons to consider seriously the following propositions for post-Manichaean progressives.
1. While distinguishing between Islam, the great world religion and Islamism, the violent, misogynist, homophobic, anti-Semitic totalitarian agenda—oppose Islamic radicalism or “Islamism.” Reject terrorism as a violation of human rights, dignity and decency. Support liberal secular institutions around the world in opposition to theocratic dictatorial regimes.
2. Support a just two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Reject “post-Zionism” and the anti-Israeli fantasy of a “one-state solution.” Whether such a vision of an end to Jewish sovereignty, were it achieved, would prove utopian or genocidal, the unrealistic scenario only makes it more difficult to reach a pragmatic, workable settlement in the region. If that makes sense to you, then why not even try defending Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state once in a while? A post-Manichean left will liberate the signifier “left” from its presumed hegemonic link with the signified, “anti-Israel.”
3. Stop thinking of powerlessness and improbable levels of moral superiority as badges of pride. Think instead from the point-of-view of one who has (actually or potentially) some power and so some responsibility to exercise it responsibly—maybe that way you’ll get some eventually. The alienated pose is too easy, clichéd, tired and ineffective.
4. Criticize freely. In other words, drop the knee-jerk anti-Americanism and reflex-Third Worldism; jettison the absurdly modest Cultural Relativism (nobody’s really buying it); and instead oppose bigotry, corruption, and lack of freedom and equality wherever these are found. Oh, and another thing—especially when scrutinizing the very real imperfections of Western secular states—recall that criticizing freely won’t mean anything unless one also criticizes responsibly, that is to say, with a sense of priority and proportion, and some feeling for what’s worth defending as well as attacking.
5. Speaking of which. Criticism isn’t enough. Situations vary greatly around the world, but take the U.S. for example (since Berube’s book deals largely with the American context). In spite of widespread cynicism about politics and politicians, most Americans still want to feel good about their country. And they have a right to, for perfectly good—some of them “left”—reasons. A post-Manichean left will understand this.
On the other hand, a left that does not understand these things, but continues to embrace Third Worldist obscurantism and faux (anti-Western) multiculturalism, will continue to raise such questions as those addressed in our lead editorial. There Bruno Chaouat asks, How is it that the contemporary French “left” seems to have veered lately to the right, in spirals of perpetual guilt-ridden confusion about Israel and the Jews?
So! Along with a series of scintillating articles shedding light in various ways on the above—contentious, we know, but that’s half the fun—and other matters, we are in addition pleased to present, as a fitting coda, two fine, informative book-reviews of two important recent books on literature’s specific role in the post-9/11, “post-postmodern” universe. Elizabeth Faucett presents a careful, balanced assessment of Kristiaan Versluys’s Out of the Blue: September 11 and the Novel (Columbia 2009); while Tore Rye Andersen explains deftly what he sees as the major significance and durable value of the first full-length study of Jonathan Franzen, written by a leading young critic of the contemporary novel, Stephen J. Burn’s path-breaking monograph, Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism (Continuum 2008).