by Ron Rosenbaum
So I went up to the antiwar demonstration in
Central Park this weekend, hoping to hear some persuasive arguments.
After a couple of hours there, listening to speeches, reading the
hate-America literature, I still don’t know what to think about
Iraq—will an attack open a Pandora’s box, or close one?—but I think
I know what I feel about this antiwar movement, or at least many of
the flock who showed up in the Sheep Meadow.
A movement of Marxist fringe groups and people who
are unable to make moral distinctions. An inability summed up by a
man holding a big poster that proudly identified him as "NYC
TEACHER." The lesson "NYC TEACHER" had for the day was that "BUSH IS
A DEVIL … HANDS OFF NORTH KOREA, IRAQ, AFGHANISTAN …. "
Yes, Bush is "a devil" compared to those
enlightened regimes that torture and murder dissidents (like "NYC
TEACHER"). Bush is certainly "a devil" compared to enlightened
leaders like Kim Jong Il, who has reduced the North Korean people in
his repulsive police state to eating moss on rocks; or to Saddam
Hussein, who tortures and gasses opponents, and starves his people
to fund his germ-war labs; or to the Taliban in Afghanistan, who
beat women into burqas. Yes, surely compared to them, Bush is "a
devil." Thank God New York’s schoolchildren are in such good
Back in 1929, Robert Graves published a memoir with
the endlessly evocative title Good-Bye to All That. He was
leaving England, saying goodbye to a society he felt was deeply
implicated, however triumphant, in the horrors he’d witnessed
firsthand in the trenches of the First World War.
Goodbye to all that. The phrase occurred to me
when I heard the sad news that Christopher Hitchens was leaving
The Nation. Sad more for The Nation, a magazine I’ve
read on and off since high school, now deprived of an important
dissenting voice amidst lockstep Left opinion. Mr. Hitchens was
valuable to The Nation, to the Left as a whole, I argued back
on Jan. 14 in these pages, because he challenged "the Left to
recognize the terrorists not as somewhat misguided spokesmen for the
wretched of the earth, but as ‘Islamo-fascists’—theocratic
oppressors of the wretched of the earth." He was leaving in
part, he said, because he’d grown tired of trying to make this case
in a venue that had become what he called "an echo chamber of those
who believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin
The Nation still has assets of course: the
incomparable polymath literary critic, John Leonard; the fierce
polemical intelligence of Katha Pollit, which I admire however much
I might disagree with her; some serious investigative reporters. And
recently Jack Newfield, who long ago co-authored an important book
on the populist tradition—still a faint hope for a non-Marxist Left
But Mr. Hitchens’ loss is a loss not just for
the magazine, but for the entire Left; it’s important that
America have an intelligent opposition, with a critique not
dependent on knee-jerk, neo-Marxist idiocy. And it’s important that
potential constituents of that opposition, like Nation
readers, be exposed to a brilliant dissenter like Christopher
And the level of idiocy one finds in knee-jerk Left
oppositionalism is sometimes astonishing. I’d like to focus on two
particular examples that have led me to want to say my own
goodbye-to-all-that as well.
Before I get into the two idiocies that tipped the
scale for me, I want to make clear that saying goodbye to idiocies
on the Left doesn’t mean becoming a conservative, neo- or otherwise.
I think I made that clear in a column published here on Jan. 28 of
this year, "Where Was the Values Crowd When Dr. King Needed Them?"
In that column, I argued that just as the Left had failed to come to
terms with its history of indifference to (at best) and support for
(at worst) genocidal Marxist regimes abroad, the Right has failed to
come to terms with its history of indifference to (at best) and
support for (at worst) racism and racist political allies here at
It’s ironic, considering what I’m about to write,
that I got a nice note from that hard-core Old Red folkie, Pete
Seeger, thanking me for my Dr. King column. But you know, I still
can understand people like Pete Seeger joining the Party back in the
30’s during the Depression, when it looked like unregulated
capitalism had cruelly immiserated America, when racism and
lynchings reigned down South and it looked (looked, I said)
as if the Soviet Union was the only force willing to stand up to
Hitler. But to cling to Marxism now, after all we’ve learned in the
past 50 years—not just about the Soviet Union, but China and
Cambodia … ?
I must confess that my own learning curve was on
the slow side, having grown up reading The Nation and The
New Republic and believing that the evils of Soviet Communism
were a figment of J. Edgar Hoover’s imagination. My slow learning
curve had a lot to do as well with coming of age during the Vietnam
War and covering antiwar demonstrations, where I found myself
seduced by the brilliant Groucho Marxism of Abbie Hoffman (I still
miss his anarchic spirit). And (more culpably) I was fascinated by
the Dostoevskian moral absolutism of the Weather Underground,
although never, thank God, by the pretensions of Marxism to be a
"science of history."
I still identify myself as a contrarian,
libertarian, pessimist, secular-humanist, anti-materialist liberal
Democrat who distrusts the worship of "the wisdom of the market."
Someone who was outraged (and outspoken in these pages) about the
Bush-Baker election tactics in Florida, for instance. But not stupid
enough to think we’d be better off with Al Gore as President now;
not stupid enough to think Al Gore is smart. (See my Nov. 6, 2000,
column, "Al’s Screwy Scrawlings Can’t Pass for Intelligence").
Anyway, all this is a preface to the Tale of Two Idiocies that has
led to my own goodbye-to-all-that moment.
Let’s begin with the little idiocy, the later one,
because I think it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. In
fact, I think I came across it shortly before I had heard of
Mr. Hitchens’ farewell. One irony of it is that this little bit of
idiocy was penned by a former Hitchens acolyte, a sometime
Nation writer now living in London who appended a cruel
little addendum to what ostensibly was a review, in London’s
Times Literary Supplement, of Tom Hanks’ Road to
At the close of an uninspired review of an
uninspired film (How many times must wannabe intellectuals quote
Robert Warshow when speaking of gangster films? Shouldn’t there be
some kind of statute of limitations?), the writer graces us with
this final reflection:
"Still, if Road to Perdition ultimately
fails as entertainment, it offers rich material for allegory. Maybe
it was because I attended a screening on Sept. 11, but I couldn’t
help seeing Hanks as an American everyman, a pure-hearted killer who
will commit no end of mayhem to ensure a better life for his
children. Imagine Willie Loman with a tommy gun, and you’ll see what
I mean. ‘You dirty rats! Attention must be paid.’"
But of course! What a brilliant point he’s
making in the course of preening his anti-Americanism before his
audience of U.K. intellectuals. What does Sept. 11 remind him of?
The way Americans are killers. Sept. 11 becomes, in his
lovely leap of logic, really about Americans being pure-hearted
killers capable of "no end of mayhem," infinite evil deeds. Doesn’t
everybody think that way? (Everybody in his little circle, I
imagine). Sept. 11 reminds them that Americans are first and
foremost murderers, so let’s not spend a moment acknowledging that
little matter of Sept. 11 being a day on which 3,000
Americans were murdered by the "pure-hearted killers" of Al
Qaeda. Who, when not committing mass murder, stone women as
punishment, torture gays, crush free thought by executing
dissidents. No, they get a pass (and the 3,000 become
non-persons). Because they hate America, they must be for
liberation, and so we can’t blame them; we must accuse
ourselves of being killers. In fact, we should thank
them for providing our witty writer with an occasion for reminding
the world that the "American everyman" is a killer.
That one paragraph is a useful compression of the
entire post-9/11 idiocy of one wing of the Left. That’s what Sept.
11 has come to mean to much of the Left: a wake-up call for American
self-hatred. Mr. Hitchens was one of the few who challenged that
But when I say goodbye-to-all-that, it’s a goodbye
that’s been brewing ever since the Really Big Idiocy, the one I
encountered barely a month after Sept. 11, from a more illustrious
figure on the Left, an academic Left paragon.
It was a mixed gathering with a heavy
representation of Left academics, and people were going around the
room and speaking about the attacks and the response. Over and over,
one heard variations on the theme of, "Gee, it’s terrible about all
those people who died in the towers and all"—that had already become
the pro forma disclaimer/preface for America-bashing—"but maybe it’s
a wake-up call for us to recognize how bad we are, Why They Hate
Us." The implication was evident: We deserved it. It would be
a salutary lesson. It was the Pat Robertson wing of the Left
in full flower: Sinful America deserved this Judgment from the sky.
Crocodile tears could be shed for those people who died in the
towers, but those buildings were so ugly, they were such
eyesores, they were a symbol of globalist hubris—it was as if
the terrorists who flew the planes into the towers were really
architectural critics, flying Herbert Muschamps, not mass
No, we must search for the "root causes," the
reasons to blame the victims for their unfortunate but symbolically
appropriate deaths. And on and on, until I felt myself already
beginning to say goodbye to the culture that produced this kind of
cruel, lockstep thinking. Until finally, the coup de
grâce—the Big Idiocy, the idiocy di tutti idiocies. It
came from the very well-respected and influential academic, who said
that there was at least one thing that was to be
welcomed about 9/11: It might give Americans the impetus to
do "what the Germans had done in the 60’s"—make an honest
reassessment of their past and its origins, as a way to renewal.
Reassessment of our past: Clearly he was speaking
admiringly of the 60’s generation in Germany coming to terms with
its Nazi past, with Germany’s embrace of Hitler.
At that point, having sat silently through an
accumulation of self-hating anti-Americanism, I couldn’t take it any
more. I’m not a demonstrative patriot; I don’t believe in putting
God in the Pledge of Allegiance, for instance. I don’t believe in
making people pledge at all—there’s something collectivist
about it. But this last was too much: We should be grateful
for 9/11 because it would allow us to reassess our shameful, even
"Isn’t there an implicit analogy you’re making
between America and Nazi Germany?" I asked. "It’s just an analogy,"
he said. Well, goodbye to all that, goodbye to the entire mind-set
behind it: the inability to distinguish America’s sporadic
blundering depradations (dissent from which was sometimes
successful) from "Germany’s past," Hitlerism. It was "just an
analogy." O.K., then, let me make an analogy here, one that I
believe goes to the "root cause" of Left idiocy of this sort.
The analogy that occurred to me grew out of a
conversation I had several years ago with the philosopher Berel
Lang, author of Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide, a talk
that took place in the course of researching my book, Explaining
Hitler. Mr. Lang is an extremely thoughtful and meticulous
thinker on the question of degrees of evil, and the role of
intentionality in determining them. He was speaking about the
question of whether one could say there was "a history of
evil"—whether Hitler represented a new fact, a new landmark in that
history, and if so, what the next step might be.
I suggested the "next step" might be Holocaust
denial, because the deniers had found a diabolical way to twist the
knife, compounding the pain of the survivors by negating and
slandering the memory of the murdered.
Mr. Lang demurred, because he had his own notion of
what the next step in the history of evil might be. The paradigm for
it, he told me, was the postwar career of Martin Heidegger, the
Nazi-friendly philosopher beloved to distraction by postmodernists
(and Hannah Arendt).
All of whom apologized for him, despite an
increasingly damning series of revelations that disclosed his
toadying to Hitler’s thugs in order to attain professional
advancement, hailing Hitler’s Reich as the ultimate synthesis of
politics and his philosophy.
But that wasn’t what made Heidegger a new chapter,
Mr. Lang said; it was his astonishing postwar behavior. After
everything came out, after it was no longer possible to deny at
least post facto knowledge of the Holocaust, nothing changed for
Heidegger. He felt no need to incorporate what happened into his
philosophy. "His silence," Mr. Lang said, "it wasn’t even denial.
For him, it wasn’t important! It wasn’t important …. Now if you ask
which of them is worse … the Revisionists [Holocaust deniers] deny
it occurred, but their official position, at least, is that if it
occurred, it would have been wrong. But Heidegger knows it occurred,
but it’s just not important—it’s not something to distort history to
deny. For Heidegger, this is not history to concern oneself
Not history to concern oneself with ….
Here’s the analogy: Heidegger’s peculiar
neutrality-slash-denial about Nazism and the Holocaust after
the facts had come out, and the contemporary Left’s curious
neutrality-slash-denial after the facts had come out about
Marxist genocides—in Russia, in China, in Cambodia, after 20
million, 50 million, who knows how many millions had been
slaughtered. Not all of the Left; many were honorable
opponents. But for many others, it just hasn’t registered, it just
hasn’t been incorporated into their "analysis" of history and human
nature; it just hasn’t been factored in. America is still the one
and only evil empire. The silence of the Left, or the exclusive
focus of the Left, on America’s alleged crimes over the past
half-century, the disdainful sneering at America’s deplorable "Cold
War mentality"—none of this has to be reassessed in light of the
evidence of genocides that surpassed Hitler’s, all in the name of a
Marxist ideology. An ideology that doesn’t need to be reassessed. As
if it was maybe just an accident that Marxist-Leninist
regimes turned totalitarian and genocidal. No connection
there. The judgment that McCarthyism was the chief crime of the Cold
War era doesn’t need a bit of a rethink, even when put up
against the mass murder of dissidents by Marxist states.
The point is, all empires commit crimes; in the
past century, ours were by far the lesser of evils. But this
sedulous denial of even the possibility of misjudgment in the
hierarchy of evils protects and insulates this wing of the Left from
an inconvenient reconsideration of whether America actually
is the worst force on the planet. This blind spot, this
stunning lack of historical perspective, robs much of the American
Left of intellectual credibility. And makes it easy for idiocies
large and small to be uttered reflexively. (Perhaps the suggestion I
recently saw on the Instapundit.com Web site calling for an
"Anti-Idiotarian" party might be appropriate.)
Recently I saw the strangest documentary, a film
with a title that sounds like a Woody Allen joke: Blind Spot:
Hitler’s Secretary. It’s a New York Film Festival pick and well
worth seeing, just for the example of willed, obtuse blindness on
the part of the secretary when she claims that she was insulated
from all the terrible things happening during the war. But even
Hitler’s secretary—unlike Heidegger, unlike the knee-jerk
anti-American Left—feels the need to make some gesture of
dismay at her "blind spot" in retrospect. But not the know-it-alls
of the Left, who have never been wrong about anything
since they adopted Marxism as their cult in college. What would the
harm be in admitting that one didn’t know as much at in college as
history has taught us now?
But noooo … (as John Belushi liked to say).
Instead, we get evasions and tortuous rationalizations like the
Slavoj Ziz^ek zigzag: This extremely fashionable postmodern Marxist
academic will concede the tens of millions murdered by Stalin, etc.,
but it’s "different" from the millions murdered by Hitler, because
the Soviet project was built on good intentions, on utopian
aspirations; the tens of millions dead were an unfortunate side
effect, a kind of unfortunate, accidental departure from the
noble Leninist path that still must be pursued.
It’s sad, though, because one senses that Mr.
Hitchens forced a lot of people on the Left to confront their blind
spot, their on-bended-knee obeisance to anyone in the Third World
who posed as a "liberator," from Mao to Castro to Arafat and the
Taliban. This was why Mr. Hitchens was so valuable and hopeful in
the immediate aftermath of 9/11, hammering away at the point that
the Islamo-fascists weren’t friends of the oppressed, they were
oppressors—of women, gays, poets and all dissenters.
But now, a year later, it seems that despite Mr.
Hitchens and a few other voices, such as Todd Gitlin’s, the
blind-spot types have won out on the Left—the blind spot to Marxist
genocide obscuring any evil but America’s. You could see it at the
Sheeps Meadow. You can see it in the hysterical seizure on Enron and
other corporate scandals: See, we were right all
along—corporations and businessmen are (surprise!) greedheads. This
excuses averting their eyes from anti-American terrorism—from people
and regimes preparing to kill Americans rather than merely
diminish their 401(k)’s. Enron was the fig leaf many on the American
Left needed to return to their customary hatred of America. Because
America isn’t perfect, it must be evil. Because Marxist regimes make
claims of perfection, they must be good.
So, for my part, goodbye to all that. Goodbye to a
culture of blindness that tolerates, as part of "peace marches,"
women wearing suicide-bomber belts as bikinis. (See the accompanying
photo of the "peace" march in Madrid. "Peace" somehow doesn’t
exclude blowing up Jewish children.)
Goodbye to the brilliant thinkers of the Left who
believe it’s the very height of wit to make fun of George W. Bush’s
intelligence—thereby establishing, of course, how very, very smart
they are. Mr. Bush may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer (I
think he’s more ill-informed and lazy than dumb). But they
are guilty of a historical stupidity on a far greater scale, in
their blind spot about Marxist genocides. It’s a failure of
self-knowledge and intellectual responsibility that far outweighs
Bush’s, because they’re supposed to be so very smart.
Goodbye to paralysis by moral equivalence: Remind
me again, was it John Ashcroft or Fidel Castro who put H.I.V.
sufferers in concentration camps?
Goodbye to the deluded and pathetic sophistry of
postmodernists of the Left, who believe their unreadable,
jargon-clotted theory-sophistry somehow helps liberate the wretched
of the earth. If they really believe in serving the cause of
liberation, why don’t they quit their evil-capitalist-subsidized
jobs and go teach literacy in a Third World starved for the insights
Goodbye to people who have demonstrated that what
terror means to them is the terror of ever having to admit
they were wrong, the terror of allowing the hideous facts of history
to impinge upon their insulated ideology.
Goodbye to all those who have evidently adopted as
their own, a version of the simpering motto of the movie Love
Story. Remember "Love means never having to say you’re sorry"?
I guess today, Left means never having to say