Liberals Stuck in Scold Mode

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 political left.

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 self-hatred.

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 tried--unsuccessfully--to foment.

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, who will?