[sixties-l] Whose Left?

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Fri Jan 26 2001 - 18:02:34 EST

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    Whose Left?


    James Neuchterlein
    (January 2001)

    There's this friend of mine who's a liberal. For years now, he's been
    trying to persuade me that I (and conservatives in general) have a
    fundamentally skewed picture of the American political scene. We are wrong
    in particular, he thinks, about the state of the political left.
     From his perspective, conservatives are caught in a kind of time warp.
    They don't see the present clearly because they are still focused on the
    past: they haven't, in short, gotten over the 1960s. Visions of a Mc
    Governized liberalism dance in their heads, a liberalism that, in their
    view, caved in to radicalism when it wasn't simply indistinguishable from
    it. My friend thinks that what went on in the sixties is more complicated
    than that, but in any case, he insists, it has nothing to do with the
    present. Sure there are crazies on the left, he concedes, but they have
    next to no real influence. They are isolated in obscure corners of the
    academy where they carry on a pointless dialogue of the deaf.
    In fact, my friend continues, the most interesting intellectual work going
    on today is among thinkers who are for the most part postideological and
    whose discourse cannot plausibly be made sense of under traditional
    categories of right and left. They know that Marx is dead and they have no
    interest in attempting to resurrect him. Similarly, they are largely
    indifferent to the radical feminists or postmodernists. They don't take the
    radicals on in pitched battle because they think any such conflicts would
    be neither interesting nor significant. The radicals get exaggerated
    attention paid to them, my friend thinks, largely because conservatives are
    so noisily frightened of them. If conservatives would calm down, he says,
    they would see that radicalism is not at all the looming danger they
    suppose it to be.
    I don't simply dismiss my friend's arguments out of hand. He's right to
    note that some conservatives sometimes talk as if this were still, say,
    1968, and that this intellectual time lag can result in distorted political
    judgments. I remember a dinner conversation a while back at a conservative
    gathering where my three table partners, all of them intelligent and
    learned scholars, could not understand my failure to agree with them that
    Bill Clinton is, at heart, a socialist. Bill Clinton is, in my view, many
    dubious things, but a socialist? I frequently find myself arguing with
    fellow conservatives, usually to little effect, that things have changed a
    lot since the sixties, more of them in our favor than most on the right,
    for whatever reason, want to acknowledge.
    It is also the case that intellectual life is less obsessively politicized
    than it was in the sixties and seventies. To put it in shorthand terms,
    compare the New York Review of Books then and now. You don't these days
    find diagrams for Molotov cocktails on NYRB's cover, and the prose inside
    is correspondingly less febrile than it used to be. The political articles
    are not nearly so over the top as they once were, and there are many more
    articles today that aren't about politics at all.
    But I can't in the end accept my friend's "beyondist" as in beyond left and
    right, argument. I was reminded why by a recent piece in the New Republic
    by Senior Editor John B. Judis ("Bad Trip," November 13, 2000). Back in the
    sixties and early seventies, Judis was a radical, a founding member of the
    socialist New American Movement. But he came to realize, as he puts it,
    that "I inhabited a political universe that bore no relation to American
    reality." So he gave up on socialism, though he still considers himself
    "part of the broader labor and Democratic Party left."
    Just before the election, Judis was invited to participate in a conference
    in New York City on globalization and independent politics, and the
    experience provided a flashback to his days as a radical. The conference,
    he reports, overflowed with hysterical rhetoric about the desperate state
    of American politics and its endemic racism, sexism, and neoimperialism.
    Judis says of the panel discussion he moderated, "All in all, you could
    have held a more intelligent and respectful discussion of American politics
    and society in the sitting room of your local mental hospital." Of the
    conference in general, he concludes that for the most part "reality was not
    on the agenda."
    Now my friend would insist that Judis' experience at the conference proves
    nothing about the general state of the American left; it merely confirms
    that, as has always been the case, you will find a lot of flaky characters
    on the fringes of academia. But this was not necessarily a fringe occasion.
    The conference's sponsors included, in addition to the Nation Institute,
    the Carnegie Foundation, Barnard College, Columbia University, the City
    University of New York (CUNY), and George Soros' Open Society Institute.
    That's more like the establishment than the fringe. And Judis reports that
    among the five hundred attendees he noted "quite a few well-known academics
    and activists."
    For Judis, the conference revealed that there are "two American lefts," and
    that they inhabit different worlds. "The reformist, democratic left of the
    AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, Public Citizen, NOW, the ACLU, and the NAACP is
    not moribund; in fact, it may even be on the rebound. But the cultural
    left, housed in universities like Duke, CUNY, and UC Santa Cruz, still
    lives, amazingly, in the bygone world of capitalist pigs, power to the
    people, and Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh."
    That last may be somewhat exaggerated, but it seems clear that there aren't
    a lot of beyondists in Judis' "cultural left." Indeed, many of his
    "reformists"leaders of NOW, the ACLU, and the NAACP, could themselves not
    unjustly be characterized as radicals. They aren't headed for the
    barricades, but the rhetoric they employ and the proposals they put forward
    are considerably more militant than, say, the platform of the Democratic Party.
    Be that as it may, I'm convinced that what Judis encountered at the
    conference in New York is far more prevalent in the intellectual world than
    my friend wants to admit. And intellectuals, as we all know, have influence
    over public opinion vastly disproportionate to their incidence in the
    population. Remember the years between the two World Wars: there were not
    many actual Marxists in America, but the Marxist influence was everywhere.
    My friend dreams of a new End of Ideology, and I can readily join him in
    wishing for its advent. It would be a great blessing if the nation could
    once again establish the broad consensus on issues of politics, economics,
    and culture that it enjoyed during the Eisenhower era. But that, to put it
    mildly, is an unlikely prospect. Like it or not, the war of ideas continues
    to rage, and though my irenic friend thinks otherwise, the right can hardly
    be faulted for recognizing and engaging that reality.

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