Smirking Revisionism

By Robert Jensen

with Rahul Mahajan

Published in Texas Observer · November, 2002

Wanted: Former leftists to attack the left.

Qualifications: Experience constructing straw figures and distorting reality. No analytic abilities needed.

At antiwar rallies and teach-ins these days one is likely to see black-bloc anarchists and the gray-haired together, secular people next to those holding crosses, and people of every ethnicity. Antiwar events include socialists, Greens, libertarians, disaffected Democrats and more than a few Republicans.

This activism is spreading beyond traditional left/progressive circles, as evidenced by the 100,000 person antiwar march in Washington, DC on October 26. As one person said at a recent antiwar event in Austin, “I’m just a normal person, and I’m pissed off, and so are all my friends.”

This suggests that the leftists–who along with faith-based peace groups have provided the intellectual and tactical leadership for the antiwar movement–are quite “normal,” if normal means sensible, committed and principled in concern for people’s welfare. By those standards, lots of Americans are coming to see the Bush administration as distinctly abnormal.

So, it is perhaps inevitable that at this moment the mainstream media would search for someone to explain how an expanding antiwar movement led by principled left groups is really nothing but a bunch of broken-down left-wing sectarian crazies who are closet crypto-fascists.

Enter Todd Gitlin, Marc Cooper and the irrepressible Christopher Hitchens, who have been busy chastising an antiwar movement in which they have no meaningful role and proclaiming themselves guardians of the soul of the left.

One strategy is to present the International Action Center, a small group that acts as a front for the sectarian Workers World Party, as spokesgroup for the antiwar movement and then denounce the whole movement for being sectarian. But these critics never mention that IAC has been thoroughly criticized by the grassroots antiwar movement. Given that no one has the right to banish another group from organizing on an issue, it’s not clear why IAC activities taint others. Perhaps it’s simply the only target within the reach of these ex-leftists.

Cooper and Gitlin also focus on the movement’s opposition to the crippling economic sanctions imposed on Iraq for the past dozen years. Cooper suggests that the left is hypocritical for supporting sanctions on apartheid in South Africa but opposing them in Iraq. But the South Africa strategy was largely based on financial disincentives for foreign businesses operating in the country and was supported by people fighting against the white racist regime there.

In Iraq, the embargo appropriates oil revenue and forces Iraq to run most of its economy from a foreign bank account. As officials who run the U.N.-administered program have repeatedly stated, the sanctions prevent Iraq from rebuilding its infrastructure and from importing sufficient quantities of food and medical supplies. The result has been a deadly spiral of water-borne diseases and inadequate medical care that has killed at least half a million children.

On the war in Afghanistan, these critics take it as a given, in Cooper’s words, that “more mature segments of the left” would support a military response to 9/11 that was “absolutely necessary” to protect public safety. However, since the war’s end it’s been clear that the left had the right idea–even FBI and CIA officials have concluded that the war in Afghanistan “failed to diminish the threat to the United States” and “might have complicated counterterrorism efforts” by transforming a small Al Qaeda group into “a radical international jihad that will be a potent force for many years to come.” The course of action that many on the left have espoused–an internationally coordinated police action along with principled changes in U.S. foreign policy–was, and remains, the sensible path to security.

All three critics conflate explanation and justification; attempts to understand why something happened are not the same as trying to justify it. Cooper is the least able to get past U.S. government spin; he cannot seem to consider the possibility that Islamic fundamentalist terrorism is bad and at the same time the Bush administration might be using the tragedy to extend U.S. power in Central Asia and the Middle East.

Hitchens no longer seems concerned whether his claims are connected to the real world. He describes “a Left that thinks of Osama bin Laden as a slightly misguided anti-imperialist,” even though leftists have consistently condemned not just bin Laden but regressive, theocratic movements in general. He accuses the left of a “smirking isolationism” and “moral relativism,” when leftists are the most consistent supporters of real internationalism based on consistent application of moral principles and international law.

The left, like any other political movement, should be self-reflective and open to external critique; serious efforts–based on honest use of evidence and rational argument–are welcome. But the polemics of Gitlin, Cooper and Hitchens fall short.

There is a tradition of former leftists shoring up their positions in mainstream institutions by trashing former colleagues. Nice work, if you can get it. But for the rest of us, the real work of advancing progressive politics remains.