Why leftists mistrust liberals
By Robert Jensen
Published in CounterPunch · April, 2006
Some of my best friends are liberals. Really. But I have found it is best not to rely on them politically.
Bashing the left to burnish credibility in mainstream circles is a time-honored liberal move, a way of saying “I’m critical of the excesses of the powerful, but not like those crazy lefties.” For example, during a discussion of post-9/11 politics, I once heard then-New York University professor (he has since moved to Columbia University) Todd Gitlin position himself between the “hard right” (such as people associated with the Bush administration) and the “hard left” (such as Noam Chomsky and other radical critics), implying an equivalence in the coherence or value of analysis of each side. The only conclusion I could reach was that Gitlin — who is both a prolific writer and a former president of Students for a Democratic Society — either believed such a claim about equivalence or said it for self-interested political purposes. Neither interpretation is terribly flattering for Gitlin.
Perhaps more important than such cases are the ways in which liberals can undermine the left even when claiming to be supportive in a common cause.
The most recent example in my life came when a faculty colleague at the University of Texas wrote about the controversy sparked by the publication of David Horowitz’s tract about the alleged threat radicals pose to universities, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. The thesis of UT classics professor Tom Palaima’s op/ed piece in the Austin daily paper was that people typically don’t give students enough credit for their ability to evaluate critically the statements of faculty members. Palaima discussed me by name in his piece, believing he was coming to the defense of faculty with dissident views who are being attacked by Horowitz.
I saw it differently. My concern about this isn’t personal; Palaima’s piece and Horowitz’s book have had no effect on my professional life. But these attacks and our responses to them have serious political and intellectual consequences more generally.
First, some definitional work: In the contemporary United States, I use the term “left” or “radical” to identify a political position that is anti-capitalist and anti-empire. Leftists fight attempts to naturalize capitalism, rejecting the assertion that such a brutal way to organize an economy is inevitable. Leftists also reject the idea that the United States has the right to dominate the world, refuting the assertion that we are uniquely benevolent in our imperial project. Liberals typically decry the worst excesses of capitalism and empire, but don’t critique the system at a more basic level.
Palaima’s op/ed piece started by stating, “Jensen’s classes have a political content” and that this led to a conservative student group putting me on a “watch list” of professors who inappropriately politicize the classroom. I teach about journalism and politics; of course my courses have political content, as does every course that deals with human affairs. The political views of professors — left, right or center — shape their courses in some ways. But by marking me as political, Palaima’s essay implies others are not, or at least not political as my class (and, by extension, the classes of other leftist professors).
Palaima goes on to refer to my “radical opinions,” suggesting students are free to accept or reject them, and are capable of doing so. I agree that students have, and exercise, that capacity. But by labeling my teaching as the expression of opinions, he adds to the perception that I, or any leftist, turn the classroom into a political pulpit. While my opinions shape my teaching — just as Palaima’s and all professors’ opinions do, of course — I don’t simply teach my opinions. I teach a mix of facts, analysis, and interpretation. When I offer students my own analysis and interpretation, I support it with evidence and logic.
Remember that Horowitz’s claim is not just that some of us have left-wing political views but that we inappropriately politicize the classroom. Though Palaima doesn’t explicitly endorse that charge, his defense of me seems to concede that point, as he goes on to defend my teaching on the basis that there is a diversity of views on campus. Yet no one — the conservative student group that targeted leftist professors, Horowitz, or Palaima — has ever offered evidence for the claim that I am inappropriate in the classroom. I have always invited anyone who wants to make such a claim to come watch me teach; I am confident I can defend my teaching methods.
Finally, near the end of his column, Palaima refers to “political extremists, on the left and the right” in a way that could easily lead readers to assume that he believes that “extremist” is an appropriate description of me. Given that is a term typically used in public discourse for violent factions (such as terrorists) or groups with ideas outside acceptable discourse (such as neo-Nazis), such casual use of it is irresponsible, further marking me as someone who need not be taken seriously.
When I raised these issues with Palaima, I made it clear I didn’t feel personally aggrieved but thought our disagreements mattered if faculty members are to make a principled defense of the university as a place where independent critical inquiry is valued. He contested my reading and said he hadn’t intended people to read the column the way I suggested they might.
I think the most likely reading of Palaima’s piece — given that many people’s existing ideas about leftists and universities are negative — is something like this: “Jensen is a radical who injects his politics into the classroom, but we shouldn’t worry too much about it because students can manage to see through it, and besides other professors are teaching from a different perspective. And oh, by the way, there are lots of sensible professors with less extreme ideas, such as …”
My response here could be seen as taking on the wrong target. Should I not be critiquing Horowitz before Palaima? Well, I have written such a critique and debated Horowitz on radio and TV. But just as important: In a political moment in which virtually every major institution in the country is dominated not just by conservatives but by reactionary right-wing ideologues, it’s easy to assume that liberals and leftists should find common cause. Those of us committed to left politics need to evaluate such cooperation on a case-by-case basis rather than assume it is always the best path, for several reasons.
First, in the short-term in this country it is difficult to see possibilities for serious progressive political change. That’s not defeatist but merely realistic. In such a period, when no mass movement is likely to emerge, one important political task is to consolidate a base of activists with common values and deeper commitments. In such a process, making the distinctions between liberal and left is crucial to the project of building a core radical contingent that can be politically effective in the future.
Second, when leftists and liberals form least-common-denominator coalitions, liberal positions dominate. There’s no history of liberals moving to include left political ideas when right-wing forces are chased from power. Think Bill Clinton, here.
That said, we in left/radical movements have made more than our share of mistakes. It’s time for a period of serious critical self-reflection about our analysis and organizing strategies. That process is not going to be advanced by ignoring the differences we have with liberals. We need to be clearer than ever about those differences in thinking about the long term.