From edition

The Left at the Moment: An Interview with Michael Bérubé

Part I/Politics in the U.S. Today: What Time is It?

Gabriel Noah Brahm: In early 2009, when The Left at War had just come out, Barack Obama was inaugurated and George W. Bush was finally out of office.  Those were heady days.  The right seemed to be on the run, as you put it in the “Introduction” to your book, which you subtitled “On Time.”  Was the feeling that things were looking up for the left, after eight long years, part of why you there called your book “untimely”?  And if so, have times changed again already, so soon and so quickly?  The book seems very timely, with war still raging and the left still in disarray.[1]

Michael Berube: I will confess to a bit of optimism in early 2009 (more on this below, when I get to the question about disappointment), but first, I want to point out that the heady days of early 2009 take up all of two paragraphs of the introduction.  I wasn’t basing any of my book’s argument on the election of Obama.  OK, granted, those two paragraphs are the first two in the book.  But the larger premise was this:  if things are now looking up for the left, however temporarily, then who wants to bother with a book of political analysis that consists almost entirely of left self-criticism?  Isn’t it better, or at least more “timely,” to celebrate the end of the Bush-Cheney era?  That’s what a “timely” book on American politics would do:  it would tell the story of Bush’s post-Katrina plunge in public opinion, growing public disillusionment with the war in Iraq, the Democrats’ victories in Congress in 2006 and in the historic election of 2008.  It would sell a bunch of copies in 2009-10, and it would be out of print by 2011.  But this book is not about Obama, not about Democrats, not about elections.  That’s the sense in which it is “untimely.”

There’s a more obscure meaning there, as well.  All through 2002-03, I was told that “now is not the time” for my criticisms of the Manichean left.  I usually replied, “no, the time to complain that an antiwar movement is being led by a neo-Stalinoid fringe group is right now, when the antiwar movement is being led by a neo-Stalinoid fringe group.”  But I took the point nonetheless, in another sense: if one is opposing the war in Iraq, one should make clear that one opposes the war in Iraq more strongly and emphatically than one opposes the “leading” opponents of the war in Iraq.  Fine.  So, I decided, I will wait, do more research, fine-tune my arguments, and publish my critique of the Manichean left at a time when they cannot say, “but the real enemy is Bush/ Cheney/ Rove/ Rumsfeld!  Focus on them!”

I am glad to hear that you find the book very timely.  I would prefer to say that it might be valuable even though it does not speak immediately to recent developments.  About those recent developments:  have times changed again, so soon and so quickly?  Yes and no.

Gregory J. Lobo: After the gathering in Washington, D.C., orchestrated recently by Comedy Central, one of the participants was quoted as saying that in the U.S. politics is being contested by the talk-show hosts and comedians. Is there something important happening there in terms of what you call (following Gramsci and Stuart Hall) “hegemony,” in terms of the struggle over consent? Or is it merely the banalization and trivialization of politics?

MB: Let’s put it this way.  If not for Jon Stewart, the Zadroga Bill—the health care bill for 9/11 first responders—would have died in the Senate, yet another victim of the all-purpose Republican filibuster of everything.  In the words of Bill Ramoka of the Uniformed Firefighter’s Association of Greater New York:  “it’s a shame that it had to come from someone on a comedy channel to make this an issue.”  Yes, yes it is.

It’s not surprising that American politics would be contested by talk-show hosts and comedians.  Better them than a half-term governor from Alaska with a Twitter feed!  But for the left (by which I mean everyone to the left of Ben Nelson of Nebraska), it is a giddy and unfamiliar feeling.  We are used to having standard-bearers from the ranks of documentarians, journalists, activists, and scholars—Michael Moore, Naomi Klein, Cesar Chavez, Noam Chomsky.  The fact that the most audible voices of “left” opinion in the US in the 2000s were Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert is very unsettling, not least for serious left journalists/activists who found Stewart’s “Restore Sanity” speech an exercise in false equivalence.  Then again, the most prominent person criticizing Stewart’s speech on those grounds was libertarian/centrist comic Bill Maher, so go figure.

I’m not sure yet whether the presence of “the left” on Comedy Central/ MSNBC constitutes an important move in the war of position.  One is tempted to point out that The Onion, for all its snarky, satiric brilliance, has not changed the practices of mainstream journalism in the US.  On the other hand, victories like Stewart’s with the Zadroga Bill are real victories, legislative and public-advocacy initiatives that improve the lives of people who desperately need help.  So I’m not willing to call that banal or trivial.

GNB/GJL: How do you see the results of the mid-term elections and the subsequent work of the lame-duck Congress? Is the Tea Party an example, formally speaking, of the kind of hegemony-work you advocate (despite differences in terms of ideology/content, of course)?  Is the right just better at hegemony in this country, and if so why?

MB: The last of these questions is matter for a good dissertation or two.  For most of my adult life, I’ve been inclined to say yes:  the right’s slogan, since the ascendancy of the New Right in 1980, might as well be “hegemony—we just do it better.”  Liberal and Democratic strategists have been waiting for three decades now for the Reagan Coalition to fracture:  surely the white rural poor will realize they have no common interests with the Club for Growth, and the evangelical Christians will realize they have no common interests with the media moguls who befoul their airwaves, their Internets, and their children’s minds (the latter hope was one of the more poignant delusions of Tom Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?)  But Godot never shows up!  Amazing!  And then, when he fails to show up, liberals and Democrats resort to cynicism:  sure, they say, the Right manages to keep its ducks in order by throwing a little red meat to the base on cultural issues while keeping the tax cuts and wealth transfers flowing upwards.  We liberals and Democrats won’t play that shell game because we’re just too honest, too dedicated to the real common good.

I think this is an elaborate form of self-deception on the part of liberals and Democrats—the idea that they could conduct a war of position with cunning and savoir-faire, but are just too principled to do so.  The truth is that they don’t have the faintest idea of how to motivate people, and when the right does motivate people by way of lies and demagoguery—as they did to remarkable effect in 2009, taking a relatively tepid universal health-insurance bill and getting its would-be beneficiaries to denounce it for “socialism” and “death panels”—then liberals are confirmed (unfortunately) in their belief that motivating people is the job of knaves and mountebanks.  So yes, the Tea Party is an example of hegemony in action, and a powerful reminder that liberals and Democrats simply do not know how to play the game.

As for the left:  as I argue in the book, the mainstream U.S. left never took on Stuart Hall’s arguments about Thatcherism, and never took seriously the Gramscian project.  It is now a stale, too-often-reheated version of the New Left, devoted to precisely the kind of “countercultural” politics I criticize in The Left at War.

And as for the midterm elections:  the news is not good.  Obama attempted a very weak, multiply-watered-down expansion of the public sector.  He was met with charges of socialism and a 63-seat loss in the House of Representatives.  There will be no second attempt at a Keynesian solution to the financial crisis, and the budget shortfalls in the states will be severe.  The GOP has no answer at all—just more tax cuts.  And tax cuts there will be.

GNB: Some thoughtful critics, such as David Bromwich for example, have eloquently expressed a poignant sense of disappointment with President Obama.  Do you share that feeling?

MB: Yes and no.  On the one hand, I want to say that I was so prepared to be disappointed in Obama—not only because of long experience with elected Democrats but also because of my wariness about his record in the Senate—that the first two years of the Obama Administration have thrown the very idea of “disappointment” into epistemic crisis.  What does it mean, after all, to say, “aha, I am disappointed in precisely the way I expected to be?”   Or to say, as Tariq Ali’s most recent book seems to say, “I am so pleased with myself that I predicted precisely this degree of disappointment”?  And then there are the leftists who are actively looking for reasons to be disappointed—the ones who believed that Obama would withdraw from Afghanistan even though he campaigned on intensifying US military operations in Afghanistan, and who now feel betrayed that Obama has broken secret campaign promises that only they could hear.

So let me be more specific.  I never expected much from Obama on the economic front.  I expected neoliberalism, more or less, and I got more:  a bailout of the financial industry, but no jobs program, no WPA, no restoration of the tax code status quo ante Bush, no “cramdown” on personal bankruptcies following from the home-mortgage meltdown.  But I am genuinely surprised, and therefore genuinely disappointed, by Obama’s record on civil liberties.  I knew he would escalate in Afghanistan, but I believed him when he said he would close Guantanamo.

That said, I should add that when UN special rapporteur on torture Manfred Nowak said, this past October, that “there is a major difference between the Bush and the Obama administration,” and that Obama had stopped the Bush-era practices of torture, the response on the keen-to-be-disappointed left was underwhelming.  The U.S. is still nowhere near the ideals of international law—witness our punitive detention of accused Wikileaker (a.k.a. patriotic whistleblower) Bradley Manning—but I cannot let severe disappointment devolve into despair.

And speaking of matters of hope and despair:  who, on the left, did not feel some small measure of optimism, however guarded, in early 2009?   Who did not entertain the thought, “perhaps now things might get a bit better for ordinary people?” Two groups, so far as I can tell:  one consisted of people who were patiently waiting to enjoy their own faux-disappointment when things went sour, and the other consisted of the remnants of the heighten-the-contradictions crew, who sincerely did not want things to get better for the average person.  Perhaps some people in both groups now congratulate themselves for their “realism”:  they were not fooled, by gum!  But I am not talking about expectations, I am talking about hope.  It was reasonable to expect that Obama would not combine the Presidential cojones of FDR and LBJ with the vision of Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman.  But what did it mean not to wish for better?  What does it mean now, should someone say, “as for me, I never gave in to hope—I never wanted things to be better than they are?”

GNB: Ted McAllister argues, in his response to your book, that the left in the U.S. can’t rule because it hasn’t got a narrative palatable to citizens: “Because the left cannot tell a story of America, they cannot govern,” he asserts.  “Howard Zinn,” for example, “has nothing to offer Americans,” he claims.  Does he have a point?  Richard Rorty used to also complain about what he called “the unpatriotic left,” insisting in his own way that a left without a good story wasn’t going anywhere—but then he also tried himself to offer one.  Is there one?

MB: The funny thing is that in a way, Howard Zinn has much to offer:  that’s why A People’s History, for all its faults, has sold almost two million copies.  The dissemination of Zinn’s work has helped, I hope, to make some Americans less self-congratulatory, more aware of the intellectual careers of Frederick Douglass and Helen Keller, and more willing to look at the unpleasant features of the historical record.  The problem, as Michael Kazin pointed out some years ago (and McAllister would probably agree with Kazin on this), is that Zinn’s narrative is a story of defeat after defeat; and even on the rare occasions when The People, United, Manage Not To Be Defeated, Zinn insists that their apparent victories are ultimately Pyrrhic insofar as they allow the system to perpetuate itself—the system that prevents 99 percent of Americans from realizing that they have common interests and a common enemy. A People’s History thus becomes, as Kazin puts it, “a painful narrative about ordinary folks who keep struggling to achieve equality, democracy, and a tolerant society, yet somehow are always defeated by a tiny band of rulers whose wiles match their greed.”

That narrative is clearly very attractive to people who need a good strong dose of demystification; that’s why Zinn’s readers, like Chomsky’s, speak as if the scales have fallen from their eyes.  My guess is that those readers tend not to focus on the defeat-upon-defeat, and are moved instead by the accounts of ordinary folks who keep struggling to achieve equality, democracy, and a tolerant society; it’s a version of what Gregory Lobo meant when he credited Chomsky with having a vague kind of “people-based hope.”  But it’s not a guide to good governance, to be sure.  Rorty, by contrast, asked us—by way of Whitman and Dewey—to see the United States as an unfinished project, a great poem that we are still writing.  I take Achieving Our Country to task in my book, but I have no doubt that Rorty had the big picture well in view:  an American left that trades primarily in cynicism and demystification will be precisely the kind of left I critique in my book, a left that appeals to two or three percent of the public.  Zinn has only one way to explain why ordinary Americans kept trying to achieve their country:  they were duped by the elites.  Rorty, by contrast, had something like Ralph Ellison’s agenda:  affirm the ideals while exposing the traducers.  Or, as Alan Ryan put it in his review of Achieving Our Country, “the point of invoking James Baldwin … is that he was entirely unforgiving of his country’s sins and still looked forward with hope to a better future. A left that fights for the political and economic changes that will ‘achieve our country’ is the left that the United States once possessed and needs as much as ever, but is hardly to be seen.”

The story to be told, then, is probably something like the story Thurgood Marshall told in his speech commemorating the bicentennial of the Constitution—a story of how an idealistic but flawed nation and its idealistic but flawed founding principles were transformed over the centuries by “momentous events” and the creation of “new constitutional principles.”  “The progress has been dramatic,” Marshall insisted, “and it will continue.”  Imagine that—faith in progress.

Part II/Islamophobia, Neoliberalism, & the Hitch

GNB: In your essay, “The Left at Bay,” you express a frightening sense of urgency about the ostensibly growing threat of Islamophobia. You write that, unlike Europe, “We don’t have many outspoken supporters of Islamism in the U.S. . . . [but] we are beginning to cultivate a culture of Islamophobic demagoguery that may yet match that of the European far right.”  You worry about “absurd degrees of Islamophobia” in the world today and marvel at “Islamophobic nuttiness.”  But is there such a thing as Islamophobia, or are we talking about people—human beings, after all, who find themselves under threat of attack and may even be prone to feeling a little nutty as such—coping with what British author Martin Amis once called “Islamismophobia,” or wariness of Islamism, as distinct from Islam the religion, a violent totalitarian political movement associated with it?  What do you say to those who assert that there is no deep-seated animus toward the Islamic faith in the U.S. that would warrant a reifying label comparable to terms designating well-documented maladies of longstanding, such as homophobia, anti-Semitism of the European/Muslim variety, or anti-Black racism?  Granted that we as a nation must protect everyone’s safety, civil rights, and freedom of religion, and given that ethnic or religious prejudice is always a bad thing (an evil the U.S. among other places has long had to cope with), what do you say to those who regard the effect of the neologism “Islamophobe” as that of a propagandistic brickbat deployed to intimidate and censor critics of Islamist reactionary politics?  By which—just to be clear—we mean of course a politics that is avowedly theocratic, not only avails itself of terrorism but celebrates it, and includes virulent anti-Semitism, misogyny, and homophobia in its discourse; a bid for “hegemony” that is generally illiberal/fascistic in form, content, means, and ends.  There were more hate-crimes reported against Jews last year than Muslims in America, but there’s no widespread discourse about an efflorescence of anti-Semitism in this country.  Nothing on the cover of Time.  Maybe they call it “terrorism” for a reason—because it terrifies.

MB: A most complicated question!  Every term in this lexicon, of course, is a potentially propagandistic brickbat.  But to take your last suggestion first, the fact that Time has not devoted a cover to anti-Semitism in the U.S. does not seem to me to be compelling evidence that Islamist terrorism has terrorized the American media.

Let me be clear about what I consider “nuttiness,” because I realize that this is a technical term.  Banning minarets, in a country with precisely four minarets, is (to put it mildly) silly.  The construction of minarets does not impinge on anyone’s human rights or anyone’s quality of life.  Likewise, demonstrating against the Park51 project—a project once praised by conservative culture warrior Laura Ingraham, of all people—does nothing whatsoever about Islamist reactionary politics.  The people organizing those demonstrations are not protesting against radical Islamism.  They are provoking needless and potentially dangerous public outrage about an Islamic cultural center, the political equivalent of an Islamic YMCA.

To repeat my original point:  on the left, there is no one in American political life who is the equivalent of George Galloway, and there is no American political party that has adopted the “we are all Hezbollah now” slogans of the SWP.  We simply do not have the level of Islamist apologism to which people like Nick Cohen and Martin Amis are responding, partly because we do not have (and for obvious reasons will not have) the British far left’s level of resentment and bile directed at the U.S.  Instead, we have widespread outrage (and a suspicious fire) at an Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee; we have Debbie Almontaser being forced to resign as the principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn; we have Martin Peretz, the former editor-in-chief of a major newsweekly, writing that he wonders whether he needs to “pretend” that American Muslims “are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment.” (Though the fact that Peretz has faced such a firestorm of criticism over his “Muslim lives are cheap” blog post indicates that they will not, after all, be tolerated in public discourse, any more than would the remarks of someone who said, “gay lives are cheap, most notably to gays.”) So no, it is not “Islamophobic” to oppose murderous groups like the Hofstad Network (to take but one example).  But it does make sense to use the term, I believe, when dealing with people whose fear and loathing of Muslims is based not on anything certain Muslims have done or said but on the very fact that they are Muslim.

GNB: I agree with you that bigoted remarks ought not be tolerated in public discourse.  And that they are not, in fact, in America, seems well attested, as you suggest, by the sorts of brief but intense “firestorms” of righteous indignation that routinely ignite to engulf anyone in the media who makes an untoward comment, whether out of awkwardness and insensitivity or genuinely racist sentiments—from beloved actors/comedians like Michael Richards, to talk-show hosts, sportscasters, candidates for office…and now gruff liberal magazine editors.  But is the “gay” analogy really fair/accurate in Peretz’s case?  After all, there is no gay-on-gay factional violence, no “Queerist” terrorism, no blowing up each others’ holy places, and no predominantly gay countries that poll anti-Semitism upwards of 90% spewing the most hateful and disgusting anti-Jewish propaganda every day.  That most victims of Islamist violence/terrorism are Muslims is a fact, and one that should concern all of those who do not think Muslim life is any less precious than anyone else’s.  So, without at all defending the way he said it–for which he deserved criticism—wasn’t something like that the real import of his statement?  And isn’t that something that should concern us at least as much as labeling a longstanding supporter of liberal causes a “racist rat” (as a protester at Harvard had it on a sign)?  If this is an example of “Islamophobia,” in other words, then it’s the kind of bigotry that does not prevent somebody from marching regularly, at the age of 70-something, in protests in East Jerusalem on the side of the Palestinians, in solidarity with Muslims seeking to block Jewish expansion there (as Peretz does).  Forgive me if this seems like a lengthy quibble over one unpleasant recent incident (leading to Peretz’s stepping aside after decades as editor-in-chief of The New Republic), but it seems to me there’s more at stake here.  It’s true we don’t have George Galloway or the SWP.  But we have ANSWER.  We have the likes of Imam Abdul Malik, giving talks on college campuses all the time, and an accompanying atmosphere of intimidation (at some of the UCs in particular) that has led to serious investigation of a growing problem of anti-Semitism in higher education in this country.  In another league, granted, we have the shocking phenomenon of ongoing suicide attacks–the Shoe Bomber, the Underpants Bomber, the Times Square Bomber, and who knows what–by Islamists.  Islamism is not Islam, but it overlaps with it, and people who ought to be concerned about the former might not always know where the line is drawn.

MB: You’re right, the gay analogy isn’t a good one.  I should have said “black lives are cheap, most notably to blacks“—because racists say this all the time about black-on-black crime.  They have to use code words these days, of course, but still.  The point remains that if Peretz had been a bit more careful, or a bit more thoughtful, he would never have written the line about Muslims not being worthy of the First Amendment, and he would have said “Muslim lives are cheap to Islamists, who hold all life cheap.”  The fact that he conflated violent Islamist extremists with Muslims in generalthat was precisely the problem.  Nor was it an isolated instance of intolerance and imprudence; it was part of a pattern that marked Peretz’s blog.  That said, I was stunned (pleasantly) to read in that New York profile that Peretz participates in the vigils and protests in Sheikh Jarrah.  Good on him for that!

As for ANSWER and the campuses:  about the former, I really do think we’re talking about the fringe of the fringe, a small handful of people who ordinarily couldn’t fill a seminar room’s worth of followers even if they offered free food and an open bar.  How in the world they got to be the organizer of the antiwar demonstrations remains a mystery.  Was every other left organization in the US asleep at the switch?  And yes, we have people like Ramsey Clark and Lynne Stewart.  My point is that they’re nowhere near the levers of state power or public influence.  About the latter, it is a matter of real concern to me that the supporters of boycotts against Israel appear to be drawn chiefly from the ranks of the academic left.  This is yet another argument the left needs to have out in the open, with plenty of light and airbecause otherwise, I think you’ll find some degree (minimal, I hope, but I fear worse) of eliminationism masquerading as humanitarian concern for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.  I take some comfort, though, in the fact that even as the British AUT and UCU have passed resolutions in favor of various boycotts of Israeli academics and universities, the AAUP has firmly opposed all academic boycotts.  As do I.

GNB/GJL: At the end of “The Left at Bay,” you bring up the fact that among the responses to the book we gathered there was no representative of what, in The Left at War, you call the “Manichean Left,” and that you would have liked to reply to one.  But is not your whole book a response to that position?  Though this might be a bit of deck stacking, perhaps you could respond briefly here to what you, who have spent so much time immersed in Manichean Left thought, would imagine to be an ML critique of you.  What would be an interesting challenge by an ML reader, and how would you respond?  You write, for instance, that it would have been nice had we included, “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.”

MB: You’re right, the Manichean Left is well represented in my book, sometimes in long block quotes.  So in some sense it has already spoken.  But I would like to hear a further response from the Manichean Left precisely because it is the object of my criticism.  I want to hear their best critique, as opposed to the effusions of people like Louis Proyect.  I would like to hear something that’s not boilerplate about U.S. imperialism in Kosovo and silent genocide in Afghanistan—something that takes seriously the question of how to think about failed states, mass murders, and terrorist networks.  I hesitate to ventriloquize a Manichean Left reader here, for fear of getting the hypothetical argument wrong and being accused of dealing in strawmen.  I mean, I can churn out the usual Ed Herman-quality stuff about my being a dupe of American empire, an apologist for U.S./NATO militarism, and (worst of all) a “liberal,” but I’d rather see someone get down to cases.  For instance, I can imagine someone to my left suggesting that my faith in internationalism is misplaced, and that the International Criminal Court will be worthy of the name on the day someone of Kissinger’s stature is hauled before it.  All I could say in return is that it makes more sense to build structures that might eventually bring people like Kissinger to some form of justice than to tear them down at the outset on the grounds that they have not yet done so.

As for neoliberalism and the Walzerian welfare state, these are much more complicated questions.  Someone suggested to me, in the course of an email exchange, that I gave the Eustonians a pass on the question of neoliberalism; it may not have seemed pressing at the time, but now that deregulation and austerity policies have done so much catastrophic damage to the world economy—and to ordinary working people—it should be much higher on the agenda.  The question of how to imagine a social welfare state without nationalism is probably above my pay grade.  There was a time when I hoped that the European Union would point the way; now I do not know where to turn.  But I have to say how sharply I was struck, upon rereading The Hard Road to Renewal, by the way Stuart Hall acknowledged and tried to grapple with the contradictions of the welfare state.  At the risk of repeating myself again and again and again, I don’t think he has received anything like the recognition he deserves in the U.S., on this count and on many others.

GNB: Your book is very much a carefully reasoned, patiently, painstakingly, admirably balanced, well-informed and even good-natured examination of the often fractious arguments for and against the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and of the problem of how progressives in particular should think about terrorism post-9/11.  So where’s Christopher Hitchens?  As you acknowledge in the book, he was responsible for an amazing barrage of “searing critiques of the Manichean left.” Yet he receives no sustained attention.  Why is that—given his prominence as the most visible and controversial pubic intellectual engaged with “the left at war” while you were conceiving and writing the book?  Can you say anything more about how you regard his significance?  As you know, he makes some comrades on the left apoplectic. . . .  Do you share their feelings of betrayal?

MB: Last question first, no.  I was surprised by his support of the Iraq War, even more surprised by his support of Bush, but I did not feel betrayed.  I did not take it personally.  I mentioned Hitchens favorably in my first post-9/11 essay, because I thought his initial responses to the Manichean left were smart and necessary—though, as I remarked even then, I could not share his sense of “exhilaration” at the conflict.  Likewise, when I covered his debate with Tariq Ali in April 2002, I remained sympathetic to many of his arguments, but was beginning to get the sense that he was going to ride them much further than I was willing to go.  So the reason I now mention his crack at the Dixie Chicks in The Left at War is not that I regard that regrettable remark as symptomatic of his thought; rather, I am trying to indicate that by 2003, he had become radioactive.  In many ways he gave the Manicheans exactly what they wanted:  see, they could say, the people who criticize Chomsky wind up leaving The Nation and voting for Bush; the people who supported war in Afghanistan are now leading the pundits’ charge into Iraq.

There’s a tactical question at stake here as well.  A lot of what passed for “debate” in those days—and now I’m talking about face-to-face stuff, not books and essays and blogs—now looks to me like the workings of our lizard brains.  It was not a question of assessing arguments so much as lining up friends and foes:  if X said it, it must be wrong, and if Y said it, its total and complete rightness could not be questioned.  I had one colleague back then who practically spat on the ground every time Todd Gitlin’s name was mentioned.  It didn’t matter what the context was.  If Todd Gitlin came out against gum disease, my friend would promptly march under the banner “we are all gingivitis now.”  I was trying to forestall that response as much as possible, even though I know I’ll get it anyway.  So I don’t deal with Hitchens at great length, precisely because Hitchens himself made it so difficult to deal with his work with the degree of care I wanted to bring to this book.

You’re right that Hitchens was and is the most visible and controversial pubic intellectual engaged with “the left at war.”  And he remains, at his best, a compelling and fascinating writer.  But he’s not the only person whose absence from the book has drawn questions.  One reader asked me why I didn’t say more about Edward Said; another wanted to see some treatment of David Rieff (who would most surely remind me that Kissinger will never appear in The Hague); still another wanted a discussion of Michael Ignatieff and Samantha Power.  Each of these figures would merit a chapter of his or her own, no question.  I just want somebody else to write those chapters.

Part III/Propaganda, Ideology, & Hegemony

GJL: You talk about the necessity to study how the American public, or a good portion of it, has been “won over” rather than deceived or manipulated.  While you have dealt with this distinction at length in your book, is it possible to say a few words about it here, for readers perhaps not wholly familiar with the details of your argument?  And could you also say something about this idea in terms of understanding international or global political dynamics?

MB: My point isn’t that people are never duped or deceived; on the contrary, it happens every day.  My point is simply that when you start from the premise that popular consent is always “manufactured” rather than won, you wind up with one version or another of “false consciousness.”  And when that happens, you conclude that the masses (which, as Raymond Williams said, are always other people) have been hornswoggled by the elites, by ideology, by the mass media—whereas you and those fortunate few of like mind have managed to escape The System unharmed.  As I suggest in my book, The Matrix is the most popular and accessible version of this theory:  we have been fed an elaborate delusion that keeps us from realizing the truth, and we can see reality for what it is only if we take the right pill.

Now, there is indeed such a thing as hegemony, but it doesn’t work quite so simply as this.  Let me turn things over to Raymond Williams—this from the essay “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory”:

“The processes of education; the processes of a much wider social training within institutions like the family; the practical definitions and organization of work; the selective tradition at an intellectual and theoretical level: all these forces are involved in a continual making and remaking of an effective dominant culture, and on them, as experienced, as built into our living, its reality depends.  If what we learn there were merely an imposed ideology, or if it were only the isolable meanings and practices of the ruling class, or of a section of the ruling class, which gets imposed on others, occupying merely the top of our minds, it would be—and one would be glad—a very much easier thing to overthrow.

As I admit in the book, it’s not easy to apply this idea to international or global political dynamics.  And as I point out in my reply to McAllister, when Stuart Hall tried to grapple with the popularity of the Falklands War, he more or less tossed out his Gramsci and reverted to the language of false consciousness; he was therefore uncharacteristically unconvincing when it came down to devising antiwar arguments that wouldn’t send the man in the pub (and his family) marching off into the sunset.  But what I’m trying to ask—and this is as ambitious and as utopian as I get—is how we can take the lessons of Gramsci, how we can start from the premise that consent is won rather than coerced, and build support for supranational structures that can check the system of perpetual war and eventual despoliation of the planet.  Suggestions are welcome.

GJL: Chomsky and Herman and like-minded thinkers will argue that their positions are supported by evidence; you, of course, make the same claim.  How does one decide?  Is it a question of better evidence?  Is it a matter of ethics and pragmatics—in other words, is it question of how we should conduct ourselves with others and how we actually can conduct ourselves with others, given the “nature” of this world?  Without expecting a complete answer: To what degree are we talking about reason and evidence, and to what degree are we talking about emotion, affect, or identification?

Allow me, if you will, to combine this question with the next, and answer them as one.

GNB: You (justly, many would say) criticize Slavoj Zizek for his Stalinoid politics, at the start of your book, making him into a poster-child for a Manichean Left that’s all total critique and no pragmatic vision.  Is that your whole view of him, though, or do you find anything valid, of use, or of genuine interest in his method of interpreting culture and human behavior?  For example, his notion of jouissance as a political factor, maybe?  Can we understand politics (or anything else) without taking into account the unconscious ways people “enjoy” their own “symptoms”?  Moreover, doesn’t such consideration in fact allow Zizek to present a sophisticated “ideology” model that is really very sophisticated (i.e., not a matter of false consciousness but of fantasy), as well as very far from Chomskian rationalism?

MB: Zizek has this part right, I think, so my answer to the final question here is simply yes.  Less simply:  no, it’s not just a matter of evidence.  People believe what they believe for all kinds of reasons, including reasons that are not properly “reasons” at all.  That’s why I’m not willing to throw out the enjoy-your-symptom baby with the Stalinoid bathwater, so to speak, and why I am willing to insist that Zizek can be a thrilling, illuminating, useful writer despite the whole totalitarianism thing.

I feel the same way about Foucault and Heidegger:  the fact that they had terrible political judgment does not invalidate Foucault’s work on the history of madness or of sexuality, or Heidegger’s readings of Plato, Sophocles, or Holderlin.  “I’m not going to take Foucault seriously on anything, because he was so foolish as to support Islamists in Iran during the revolution” is just a more sophisticated form of lizard-brain activity.  Surely it’s possible to acknowledge that someone is an interesting thinker even if s/he has poor political judgment.

GJL: Apart from Ellen Willis and Stuart Hall, whom you lionize as avatars of the “democratic left,” are there other thinkers out there who seem to be really grappling with reality and relations of power in the sorts of ways you find useful and necessary?  If there are, can you point to some of them and say a few words about what you find valuable in their thinking?

MB: Here’s an idiosyncratic list for you:  I liked John Brenkman’s The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy very much, and I always learn from the work of Bruce Robbins and John McGowan, because their work is always so careful and thoughtful.  Ramesh Thakur’s The United Nations, Peace and Security is a terrific book on the UN.  I’ve admired Michelle Goldberg’s journalism for some time, and can recommend The Means of Reproduction; I’m hoping that she’ll become the Ellen Willis of her generation.  And I’ll read pretty much anything Ian Williams or Laura Rozen write on international affairs; they’re always smart and unhoodwinkable.  Lastly, though he went further on Israel than I would, Tony Judt will be sorely missed by everyone who cares about the fate of social democracy.

Part IV/The Left @

GNB/GJL: What surprised you about participating in this special issue of Politics & Culture devoted to evaluating your book?  What did you learn or were you moved to rethink?

MB: I was surprised that this was not an exchange confined to paid-up, card-carrying leftists.  (I was a little surprised that it was all guys, but c’est la vie et c’est la gauche à la guerre.)  So I had to spend some time trying to figure out how to address people who don’t share my basic political assumptions; as I say in “The Left at Bay,” I was mildly amused that conservative readers noted that the book isn’t about them, but they were right to suggest that I pitched the book explicitly as an in-house debate.  Notably, I found myself having to take inventory of my beliefs about Israel, since I was no longer dealing exclusively with critiques from my left; and I had to put the question of Islamism (and Islamist apologism) front and center in a way that my book does not.  Very useful exercises, all.

Part V/At it Again

GNB/GJL: What is your next project?

MB: Narrative and Disability, about the implications of cognitive disability for understanding narrative theory and experimental fiction—and about the undertheorization of intellectual disability in disability studies.  Should be fun: I’m looking forward to writing it at some point in the next couple of years.  It will be something of a relief to write about literature again.


[1]Interview conducted December 27-29, 2010.

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