LEFT AND RIGHT
Liberals Stuck in Scold Mode
By MARC COOPER, Marc Cooper is a contributing editor to The Nation
magazine and a columnist for L.A. Weekly
It called itself a peace rally. But if you watched the
first major post-Sept. 11 anti-war demonstration on
C-SPAN two weekends ago, it was really more a
self-caricature of an American left that has
struggled unsuccessfully since the attacks to find its
proper national voice and posture.
There were just about the same number of
protestors in the Washington, D.C., streets that day
as there were victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Watching that march and rally, it occurred to me
how powerful an image could have been created if
each demonstrator had carried an American flag
and, perhaps, a black cardboard silhouette
representing those who had perished in the attacks.
Instead, the rally unfolded as some kind of robotic
rent-a-demonstration, morally and politically detached from this crucial historic
moment. A succession of speakers mounted the podium, genuflecting only
briefly--if at all--to the dead before campaigning for the usual Top 40 list of
progressive issues, from universal health care, to drug-war reform, to freeing
death-row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. Virtually nothing was said about what
America should do in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks--other than to flagellate
itself for a sordid list of foreign policy sins and transgressions. It was a great
missed opportunity. This is a time when America needs an effective and mature
Instead, the American left--or at least a broad swath of it--is more alienated
from its own national institutions than its counterparts in any other developed
nation. Even its own national symbols have become anathema (what a warning
signal when you cannot tolerate the sight of your own flag).
Some conservative critics have lambasted this left for being subversive, even
treasonous. I prefer to characterize it as traumatized and dysfunctional.
Occupying the narrow space of a progressive opposition inside the greatest
superpower in history comes, apparently, with a certain psychic cost. In the
years since World War II, the American left has had reason to be skeptical
about the deployment of U.S. military power. From the covert operations
against Iranian, Guatemalan and Nicaraguan sovereignty, to the overt
interventionism in countries from Vietnam to Santo Domingo to Panama to
hapless Grenada, American military might has often seemed little more than the
sulphuric expression of imperial hubris.
Seldom finding resonance with a domestic working class it claims to represent,
U.S. progressives have often retreated into "third worldism," fancying
themselves the righteous advocates and defenders of poorer nations that find
themselves on the receiving end of American foreign policy and military might.
At its best, this "solidarity politics" has achieved important policy objectives--as
with the widespread 1980's political resistance to the Reagan administration's
Contra war in Central America. At its worst, it breeds something akin to
The end result of this psycho-political micro-climate are two generations of
American leftists who lack the political sensibility and even the simple emotional
language that would allow them to see their own fellow citizens, even
transitorily, as victims rather than victimizers, that would allow them to
distinguish between a CIA coup abroad and the butchering of thousands of
innocent American civilians at home.
Hence, that odious whiff of "chickens coming home to roost" that has
permeated much of the left's reaction to Sept. 11. It's one thing to argue that
Americans are naive and perhaps arrogant to have believed in a historic
exceptionalism that could immunize them against pain and bloodshed on their
own soil. It's quite another to suggest, as I repeatedly heard during that peace
rally, that America somehow invited last month's massacre. Morally repugnant
and politically unviable, this sort of demagogy can only render the left irrelevant.
These difficult times require the active and effective presence of a
clearer-thinking left, one that can offer unique and salutary perspectives to
counter a war-empowered, conservative Bush administration.
It must begin with an unequivocal acknowledgement that the perpetrators of
Sept. 11 are in no way the avengers of some oppressed constituency. They
were atavistic, religious fascists whose world view is diametrically opposed to
all humanitarian and progressive morality.
And the left must recognize that these forces cannot be neutralized by
nonviolent moral suasion or international law alone. As some on the left have
argued, the WTC attacks demand a "just response" that includes limited,
targeted and effective military action aimed at lessening the threat of future
terrorist attacks and restoring a sense of domestic security. For those who are
squeamish about taking out Osama Bin Laden's network and its Taliban
defenders, let them reflect on just how much further American politics will slide
to the right if there are a half-dozen more major terror attacks here at home.
But the left must also be vigilant against any attempt by the Bush administration
and its most right-wing allies to expand this war into an undefined, indeterminate
and ultimately self-defeating global crusade. There is no military solution to
terrorism: There is only a military component. Accordingly, the left must
demand that the humanitarian component of the U.S. response go beyond what
has been an embarrassingly meager air drop of a few thousand army rations to
millions of starving Afghans. Any post-Taliban Afghanistan must receive
massive economic support and not be abandoned the morning after military
victory is declared, as the U.S. did after the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan a
dozen years ago.
Likewise, only the left can push for an authentic internationalism that would
include strengthening the United Nations, as well as new venues of global
justice like the International Criminal Court. Regional conflicts, first among them
the Israeli-Palestinian war, must be solved quickly and justly. Progressives can
and must exert pressure for a sea change in a U.S. policy that has propped up
the most anti-democratic forces in the region.
Domestically, progressives have a gaping vacuum to fill, as the Democratic
Party seems blown adrift by the winds of war. Excessive federal police power
must be blocked (in this regard a promising left-right coalition has already
emerged, uniting the American Civil Liberties Union and National Rifle
Association board members in defense of the 4th Amendment).
The left must be vigilant in protecting all dissent and in safeguarding against the
kind of domestic witch hunts that some conservative ideologues have already
Finally, the left must counter what some have called 'policy profiteering'--the
cynical wrapping of the American flag around an expedited and partisan
Republican policy agenda.
We on the left must walk and chew gum at the same time. Supporting limited
military action and increasing domestic security does not mean surrendering on
civil liberties or grotesque handouts of corporate welfare (as seen in the
bipartisan rubber stamping of the airlines bailout) or new tax cuts for the
wealthy. If sacrifices are to be made to restore any sense of security, then they
must be equally shouldered.
These policy points should be more than a political wish list. A democratic and
mature American left must assume them as our moral imperatives. If we don't,
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