I have the advantage -- strange to call it an advantage -- of remembering what the
Great Depression, when I was an activist teen, was like, as well as the wild
disregard, disdain, and also fear of the Left in the Roaring Twenties, when I was a
precocious newspaper reader. I do not know whether today's announcement of 26,000
layoffs by DaimlerChrysler, the smaller layoffs in NASDAQ firms, or, above all, the
insane California electricity "crisis" mark the beginning of or will trigger
another Great Depression. I do know that when it happens (of course it will happen,
as we now live under deregulated capitalism, which is what brought on the last one,
ultimately resulting in the New Deal regulated capitalism legislastion, which has
prevented a recurrence till now), the complacent idiots of the right and of the
"progressive" Democratic center will, to quote Ronald Reagan's quote of a Russian
phrase, be swept into the dustbin of history. I also know, as the result of a long
conscious lifetime, that attempting to predict history is nonsense except under
unusually stable conditions. So -- fasten your seat belts.
> 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.
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Wed Jan 31 2001 - 05:03:36 EST