Straw Liberals and False Prophets

Straw Liberals and False Prophets

One big problem with liberal and leftist debate about Al Qaeda or Iraq is that it rarely seems to have much to do with Al Qaeda or Iraq.


One big problem with liberal and leftist debate about Al Qaeda or Iraq is that it rarely seems to have much to do with Al Qaeda or Iraq. Too often it is about settling personal and political scores, which invites both liberal impotence and conservative McCarthyism.

A few figures on the left do come close to fitting the peacenik caricature currently in fashion. If Alexander Cockburn, Noam Chomsky or Gore Vidal has ever had anything balanced or nuanced to say about America’s role in the world, I’ve missed it. But excluding Chomsky’s (considerable) authority on college campuses and Vidal’s among the global glitterati, their influence is negligible. Perhaps their reflexive anti-Western views represent majority opinion among the 2.7 percent of voters who pulled the lever for Ralph Nader. I don’t know. But they enjoy no discernible resonance in policy debates or electoral contests.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that those who condemn liberals and “the left” for their irresponsibility about the war have to reach so deep into the anonymous masses for targets. When New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof–who has plenty of kind words about the Saudis–takes off after the “intelligent left” “slipping into a…cesspool of outraged incoherence,” he is reduced in his target-hunting to picking off a previously unknown group called Citizens for Legitimate Government, a few unnamed “liberal Web sites” and a conspiratorial (and anonymous) e-mail or two. The same sorry tactic was employed by New Republic editor Peter Beinart vis-à-vis Al Qaeda last year to excoriate globalization protesters in the wake of 9/11.

The other side has been no less intellectually lazy or politically transparent in its choice of attack. Writing in this magazine a few months ago, Adam Shatz falsely accused Paul Berman and others associated with Dissent magazine of allowing Israel to “shape and even define” their foreign policy views. He childishly chided Michael Walzer for appearing “to regard [Noam Chomsky] as an even greater menace to society than Osama himself.”

This is nonsense on a nuclear scale but no worse than Christopher Hitchens’s slander of Jimmy Carter, whom he accuses–sans evidence–of inciting Saddam Hussein to attack Iran in 1980. Hitchens also voices contempt for that segment of the “fellow-traveling” left, minuscule if indeed even existent, that views the terrorist mass-murderer bin Laden as merely “a slightly misguided anti-imperialist.” Meanwhile, the usually perspicacious Ron Rosenbaum attended an antiwar demonstration and discovered, as Michael Tomasky wrote on the Altercation website (, “mirabile dictu, that a lot of the anti-American palaver he heard there was insipid, reflexive, and, worst of all, guilty of a grotesque tendency to see only America’s evils and not those of Al Qaeda or Saddam or Joseph Stalin. So Ron says goodbye to all that, evoking the title of a famous 1929 memoir by Robert Graves upon leaving his native England.”

In the real world, conservatives control the political discourse and deploy careless accusations like these in the service of their goal to marginalize liberals out of existence. Salon‘s Andrew Sullivan recently referred to the disgusting views of Irish poet Tom Paulin, who termed Jewish settlers in the West Bank “Nazis” and rejoiced in their murder, as “typical leftist anti-Semitism.” Ann Coulter, who guffaws about the mass murder of journalists and liberal politicians, was recently invited by ABC’s Good Morning America to help viewers interpret the midterm elections. Even the delusional David Horowitz, still refighting the battles of the Black Panthers–and also a Salon columnist–can get himself booked regularly on cable TV for the purpose of spreading his McCarthyite mishigas.

The purpose of intellectuals, as Amos Oz instructed the 1986 PEN writers’ conference, is to make distinctions. When Kristof, Hitchens, Beinart and Rosenbaum smear all liberals and leftists with the sins of a silly few, they are repudiating the highest calling each writer professes to revere. If they really wish to say goodbye to their “ex-comrades” in an honest and responsible fashion, they should go after those writers and thinkers whose work speaks for larger, more significant tendencies than those written on demonstration placards. Paul Simon notwithstanding, the words of the prophets are not written on the subway walls and tenement halls.

Nowhere in any of the above attacks, for instance, could I locate an engagement with the work of liberal writers or politicians of genuine merit and reputation. Not a single reference, in other words, to names like: Rorty, Walzer, Wills, Kuttner, Meyerson, Hertzberg, Rich, Krugman, Reich, Gitlin, Berman, Ivins, Green, Hoffmann, Gates, Kennedy (Edward, Randy, David and Paul), West, Judis, Kazin, Brinkley, Tomasky, Jackson, FitzGerald, Didion, Dyson, Power, Moyers, Frank, Pelosi, Feingold, McGovern (Jim and George), Wilentz, Fallows, McGrory, Navasky, vanden Heuvel, Kinsley, Scheer, Conason, Packer, Cohen, etc.

This is the patriotic left that Hitchens would have had to engage had he been serious about his critique of “America’s liberals” in The Atlantic Monthly last year. It is their work that Kristof would have been duty-bound to examine rather than nutty websites. What has passed for analysis so far in this benighted genre is no more legitimate–or convincing–than those who would hold all conservatives responsible for the postings on or, cheering the death of Paul Wellstone, his wife and daughter.

None of this is intended to minimize the profoundly depressing state of liberal and leftist debate or the divisions within it. Cockburn was explicit last week in his contempt for virtually all liberals and eager to forge an alliance with the (xenophobic) far right. Chomsky and Vidal are clearly engaged in a different sort of project from that of liberals as well. But when ex-leftists make common cause with those who have made careers of calling them traitors and dupes, discourse becomes polluted and dialogue impossible. Across that abyss lies not George Orwell or Sidney Hook but David Horowitz and Roy Cohn. Look long and hard, friends, before you leap.

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