I have spent most of adult life trying to figure out what makes American “progressives” think as they do. It is not an easy task.
Why, for example, would the counterculture protestors of the late 1960s and the 1970s, who postured proudly as champions of the working class, express contempt for hardhats and police officers? Why was the crowd that was fond of slogans about “doing your own thing” making excuses for tyrants such as Mao and Fidel Castro? Why was left-wing attorney William Kunstler lionized by the gentle people who went to San Francisco with flowers in their hair as he rushed to the state prison at Attica in 1971 to defend the rioters who had brutally executed 11 of the 39 correctional officers they held as hostages?
By the 1980s, I thought I had worked my way through these brambles. It could all be explained, I thought, in Marxist terms. Not that I believed everyone on the Left was a “card-carrying” Communist, or actively reading and contemplating Marx. They didn’t have to study Marx. Marxism was in the air we breathed. There was no need for Jane Fonda and John Lennon to pore over Das Kapital to get their view of America and its place in the world. Slogans about world revolution and capitalist exploitation of the working class were everywhere, at student sit-ins and in the songs and films of the period.
That is why, for the leftists of that era, Mao and Fidel and Ho Chi Minh were admirable figures; they were viewed as the champions of the Third World in its struggle against expanding American capitalism. It is also why left-wing revolutionary groups at home, such as the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers, were portrayed as noble; they employed violence against the capitalist “establishment.” Redneck extremists in the Ku Klux Klan and skinhead groups did not receive the same consideration.
I got to the point where I was confident I could predict what left-wing intellectuals and politicians would say about an issue even before they rushed to the microphones for a press conference. Nowadays I am not so certain. Something has changed. The ideological framework seems shattered. The brouhaha over Yale’s decision to admit Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, a former ambassador-at-large of the Afghan Taliban, is as good a case as any to illustrate the point.
No one would be surprised if Hashemi were a Venezuelan student who championed the socialist policies of Hugo Chavez. In that case, we would know what the authorities at Yale mean by their statement that his admission fits into Yale’s belief that “universities are places that must strive to increase understanding, especially of the most difficult issues that face the nation and the world.” But the Taliban is not a movement of the Left. It is authoritarian and rooted in religious belief, sexist and hostile to the goals of the homosexual revolution. Yale would not have opened itself to a student who represented a German neo-Nazi group or a follower of Jean LePen’s National Front in order to “increase understanding” of “difficult issues.” Why then the Taliban?
The same can be said about the American Left’s reaction to the war in Iraq. Why are the same people who were willing to support Bill Clinton’s military intervention on behalf of the democratic rights of Muslims in the Balkans and oppressed blacks in Haiti so eager to condemn the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq? (This separates most of the American Left from opponents of the war in Iraq such as Patrick Buchanan, Charley Reese and Joseph Sobran, who also opposed Clinton’s intervention in the Balkans.) You would think leftists would be ardent proponents of American power being employed to further the cause of spreading individual rights and freedom of religion in the Muslim world. That outcome would further the cause of world revolution as defined by the left-wing intellectuals of the 1960s and 1970s.
The left-wing writer Christopher Hitchens has been making exactly that point. He is a supporter of the war in Iraq. He scolds fellow leftists for overlooking the big picture, arguing that an American victory in Iraq will advance the cause of secularism in the Middle East; that anyone who believes the world was made a better place by the overthrow of the old regime governments in Europe should be on board the American effort to displace Islamic theocrats.
There are other examples: Why would liberal Democrats who have spent their lives wagging their fingers at ethnocentrism and racial profiling rush to express their indignation over a company from Dubai getting control over the administration of some American ports? Why would Susan Sarandon jump at the chance to portray Cindy Sheehan in a movie, when Sheehan has made comments about Israel and its control over American politics that Sarandon would denounce in any other circumstance? What is going on when French students who call themselves anarchists engage in week-long protests to protect job security in France? Egads anarchists taking to the street for job security?
What explains this muddying of the ideological waters? Is ideology dead? Is dialectical materialism now irrelevant? Are we entering a period when political partisanship and the defeat of the Republicans matter more to the Left than ideological consistency? Is the Left’s goal to get the Democratic Party back into power even if that requires them to take positions that are ideologically jumbled and promote outcomes inimical to the goals of the secular Left as historically defined? Do celebrities now shape the Left’s agenda, rather than Marxist academics?
Maybe that is the case. It is hard to understand, for example, how an intelligent man or woman of the Left would want to see the ascendancy of the mullah-dominated government of Iran in the Middle East. Yet one gets the distinct impression that many on the Left would welcome precisely that outcome, if it could be used to permanently disparage the legacy of the Bush administration.
On the other hand, there may be a method to this apparent madness on the Left, a common denominator to these apparent ideological inconsistencies. More on this in my next column.
(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)