Towards A Decent Left?

Paul Street 

the many disagreeable parts of the aftermath
of September
11, we might include the intensification of internal unpleasantness
within an American left. This latest unpleasantness has been a fairly
one-sided affair, with most of the heat coming from the centrist
liberal-left, associated with journals like Dissent and American
and writers like Michael Walzer, Jeffrey Issac, and
Christopher Hitchens. It has been directed at the more radical left,
associated primarily with Z Magazine, ZNet, and, insofar
as the liberal-left is willing to name names, Noam Chomsky. 

liberal-left accusations, many of which have been repeated and updated
in the recently released Spring issue of Dissent, include
the following: 

  • The left made
    “relativist justifications” and “excuses”
    for terror because they spoke and wrote about the pivotal role
    that United States foreign policy and related Middle Eastern poverty
    had played in creating the context for the rise of terrible and
    extremist terror networks in the mideast and because they noted
    that the U.S. and its clients were responsible for massive terror
    across the world today and for the last 50 or more years. 
  • Radicals excused
    terror as the only weapon left to the weak and powerless, forgetting
    that terror is the reflection of the morally flawed human agency
    of people who have failed to build a strong political relationship
    with the masses they claim to represent. 
  • Radicals naively
    saw 9-11 as some sort of virtuous anti-imperialist response to
    the interrelated evils of world-capitalist inequality, corporate
    globalization, and U.S. hegemony. Michael Walzer even accused
    the left of reveling in the attacks and thinking that the victims
    of 9-11 and of terror generally deserve their fate because they
    are beneficiaries of empire. 

liberal-left charge of left apology appeared in the first post 9-11
editorial in In These Times. It claimed that certain unnamed
“commentators, mostly on the left” had “excused the
inexcusable attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by
Islamic extremists” with the “relativist” claim that
the U.S. and its clients had often matched and gone beyond the crimes
of 9-11 during recent history. 

charge was echoed by Michael Walzer, editor of the social-democratic
journal Dissent. In an article titled “Excusing Terror:
the Politics of Ideological Apology” in the liberal-left journal
American Prospect (October 22, 2001), Walzer accused
“parts of the European and American left” of justifying
the September attacks with “rationalizations” rooted in
their “political culture of excuses.” According to Walzer,
the left excused terror as the only weapon left to the weak and
powerless, forgetting that terror is the evil choice of people who
have failed to build a strong political relationship with the masses
they claim to represent. Walzer agreed with the Nation’s
leading liberal-left columnist Christopher Hitchens that left critics
(what Hitchens called “the Chomsky-Zinn-Finkelstein crowd”)
naively saw 9-11 as some sort of virtuous anti-imperialist response
to the interrelated evils of world-capitalist inequality, corporate
globalization, and U.S. hegemony. He even accused the left of thinking
that the victims of 9-11 and of terror generally deserve their fate
because they are beneficiaries of empire. 

liberal-left attack on the left got especially personal in an October
American Prospect essay penned by Indiana University Professor
and frequent Dissent contributor, Jeffrey Issac, bearing
the pithy title “Thus Spake Noam.” Issac named Chomsky
as a de facto apologist for the September atrocities on the basis
of a rhetorical argument made by Chomsky in The New Military
Humanism (
2000). To be morally consistent, Chomsky argued in
that book, those who supported the bombing of Belgrade as punishment
for Serbian actions in Kosovo should also have advocated the bombing
of Jakarta (Indonesia), Washington, DC, and London to punish Indonesia’s
U.S.-and UK-sponsored genocidal invasion, annexation, and more recent
terrorization of East Timor. This argument, Issac claimed, encouraged
anti- American terrorism, because it made “no policy relevant
distinctions” and implied “moral equivalency” between
the behavior of the terrorist Indonesian state and the noble intentions
and actions of humanitarian and democratic states like the U.S.
and England. Isaac further claimed that Chomsky encouraged terrorism
by offering no serious alternatives to U.S. imperialism and no meaningful
global “dialectic” other than that between evil American
empire and quasi-virtuous anti-imperialist/anti-American terror. 

is apparent in a recent Dissent, the left-liberal assault
continues. In essays by Walzer and Issac, this issue skewers the
American left for opposing the bombing of Afghanistan. The left
expresses, Walzer and Issac claim, naïve opposition to elementary
principles of self-defense and thoughtless embrace of terrorist
monsters just because they hate America. Walzer accuses the left
of “failure to register the horror of the [September 11] attack”
and even of “barely concealed glee that the imperial state
had finally gotten what it deserved.” 

Walzer and Issac, leftists’ failure to appreciate the necessity
of America’s imperial response to September 11 as the result
of a tangled web of left pathologies. These pathological patterns

  • A lingering
    “rag-tag Marxist” belief that “any group that attacks
    the imperial power must be a representative of the oppressed and
    its agenda must be the agenda of the left” 
  • “Guilt,”
    “festering resentment,” and “self-hatred”
    produced by living in the world’s only superpower and “enjoying
    its privileges” and by “long years spent in [supposedly]
    fruitless opposition to the global reach of American power” 
  • A knee-jerk
    “moral-purist” attachment to “blaming America first”
    and a related sense that “everything that goes badly in the
    world goes badly because of us” 
  • A sense “of
    not being entitled to criticize anyone” outside the privileged
    U.S. and a related suspension of any and all judgment about the
    behavior and values of non-Americans 
  • A naïve
    attachment to pacifism that is, in reality, a morally bankrupt
    commitment to powerlessness and “doing nothing” in the
    face of manifest evil, leaving Americans defenseless in the face
    of future attacks 

is so disgusted by radical’s “self-hating” refusal
to sign up with the official explanations of and response to 9-11
that he wonders, in a question that provides the title for his essay,
“Can there Be a Decent Left?” 

Straw Dogs and Red-Herrings 

liberal-left’s charges against the left are serious, going
to the heart of the left’s moral integrity. Fortunately, it
is easy to show that the liberal-left attack horribly misrepresents
what radicals actually said and wrote about the causes and meaning
of 9-11. As will be seen, the distance between the liberal-left
description of left response and the reality of what the left actually
said and wrote is quite remarkable—a
chasm really. One is left to wonder whether writers like Walzer
had the decency to actually read the left’s readily available
commentary before assaulting it. 

left has consistently denounced the attacks as what Chomsky on October
18 at MIT called “a horrendous atrocity, probably the most
devastating instant human toll of any crime in history, outside
of war.” 

Crimes” wrote Stephen Shalom and Mike Albert in October, “in
no way justify or excuse the attacks of September 11. Terror is
an unacceptable response to U.S. crimes.” Here is my own comment
at a September 18 forum at Northern Illinois University: “The
September 11th terror attacks on the World Trade Center were hideously
and horribly evil. There is no acceptable justification for the
destruction of innocent lives, mostly of ordinary working people,
including secretaries, firemen, [sic] janitors, food service workers,
and child care workers. Whoever ordered, financed, and directed
the assault is by definition a cold-blooded monster. They must be
found and held accountable for their colossal crime.” 

course, these unambiguous statements are not good enough for the
liberal-left. It seems to think the left excused and even approved
of 9-11 because it had the audacity to question the official Bush
line that America was targeted because of its supposed special commitment
to freedom and democracy and because it discussed some of the factors
that helped “create a [Middle Eastern] environment conducive
to recruiting people to commit” horrible acts against the U.S.
Those factors included the widespread and understandable feeling
among Arabs that “the U.S. obstructs freedom and democracy
as well as material plenty for others”; U.S. support of Israeli
oppression of the Palestinians; U.S. support for authoritarian regimes
that supply U.S. corporations with huge profits and powerful opposition
to movements that oppose those profits; and U.S. promotion of a
global economic system that creates massive poverty in the Middle
East and elsewhere. 

reprehensible to the liberal-left was the left’s insistence
on seeing 9-11 in comparative and historical context relative to
terrorist U.S. actions and those of its client states and to the
general course of atrocity in the human record. Chomsky had what
the liberal-left considers the inexcusable effrontery to note that
9-11’s terrible human consequences have been matched and gone
beyond by numerous terrorist actions conducted by the U.S. and its
clients, including the Clinton administration’s brazen bombing
of Sudan.  

liberal-left critique of left “relativism” is based on
an imbecilic conflation of explanation with rationalization and
understanding with approval. It is based also on a concomitant failure
to see the at-once practical and moral necessity for an explanation
that goes beyond the misleading rhetoric of the political, military,
and media establishment. Does an historian embrace Adolph Hitler’s
crimes when he or she writes about the historical circumstances
that contributed to the rise of Nazism? No more than a good sociologist
justifies murder by analyzing the social, economic, and/or other
circumstances that tend to increase the number and frequency of

a famous 1961 essay on historical causation, the great British historian
Edward Hallett Carr noted that an Institute and Chair of Criminology
had recently been set up at Cambridge University. “It would
not, I feel sure, occur to any of those investigating the causes
of crime to suggest that this committed them to a denial of the
moral responsibility of the criminal.” In his What Is History?
(1961), Carr wrote with appropriate intellectual and moral disdain
for those who argued, “explaining human behavior in causal
terms implies a denial of human free will” and “encourages
historians to evade their supposed obligation to pronounce moral
condemnation on the Charlemagnes, Stalins, and Napoleons of history.”
He noted that few people in everyday life hold to the ridiculous
ideas that human actions are governed purely by free will, without
relation to external and historical circumstances. Without knowledge
of those circumstances, Carr knew, there can be no intelligent understanding
of historical crimes to provide a reasonable basis action to prevent
replication of terrible past events. 

with Carr’s common-sense analysis, the post-9-11 left talked
and wrote about the historical and social context that had likely
given rise to al Quaida and its terrible deeds not to excuse those
deeds but rather to understand them and prevent their reoccurrence.
At the same time, they noted American crimes, past and present,
and those of other regimes, not to excuse those of 9-11, but rather
because those crimes are part of the context for the atrocities
of September. They sought also to remind citizens that American
policy makers held no moral basis to claim special virtue and a
related right to launch a military response that would certainly
widen the circle of human suffering, killing many innocent Afghans
(as in fact occurred), and possibly provoke new attacks on Americans.
They hoped also to tell their fellow Americans why most of the rest
of the world, not without real sympathy for the victims, nonetheless
saw 9-11 from a very different perspective—something we might
want to understand if we wish to respond in a way that contributes
to healing rather than more violence. 

not rationalization, was and remains the motive behind the writings
of the “left commentators.” As Chomsky put it in the immediate
aftermath of the attacks, “we have a choice” as to how
to react: …we can express justified horror; we can seek to
understand what may have led to the crimes, which means making an
effort to enter the minds of the likely perpetrators…we may
try to understand, or refuse to do so, contributing to the likelihood
that much worse lies ahead.” 

 Virtuous Struggle of the Poor? 

Chomsky is the main butt of their post 9-11 attacks on the left,
the liberal-left ought to review the following early (October 2)
exchange between Chomsky and a questioner who communicated through
an MSNBC chat room. This exchange clearly shows that Chomsky had
no naïve, romantic, or “Marxist”—“rag tag”
or otherwise—ideas about the virtuous proletarian and/or anti-imperialist
character of 9-11’s likely perpetrators, the Taliban, or other
extremist Muslim organizations: 

I agree with you that aggressive militarism is not the answer to
this mess, but the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s networks seem
to be totalitarian and apocalyptic clerical fascist movements. Isn’t
this a moment the left needs to just say it is against terrorism,
and that groups like the Taliban and Bin-Laden networks are not
liberation stuggles but reactionary or fascistic movements that
we oppose? 

As far as I’m aware, that’s what the left has been saying
for 20 years. I know I have ever since these groups were organized
by the CIA, Pakistani, and Egyptian intelligence and other U.S.
allies. They were organized, recruited, trained, and armed to fight
a holy war against the Russians, which they did. But they also started
right away carrying out terrorist acts. Twenty years ago they assassinated
the president of Egypt and they’ve been carrying out terror
ever since. The groups that the CIA organized were drawn from extremist
radical Islamic groups and they have been pursuing their own agenda.
They did what the CIA wanted them to, but they have also been pursuing
their own agenda. There is no doubt that from the start they were
murderous terrorist organizations. I don’t know if the word
fascist is exactly correct, they don’t have that kind of ideology.
But they’re extremely dangerous and have been for 20 years.
It is quite obvious. That’s been the position, as far as I’m
aware, of any serious person on the left as far back as I can remember. 

further, is Chomsky’s readily available, published response,
given within ten days of the attacks, to a radio journalist who
wondered if bin-Laden and al Quaida were motivated by bitterness
towards U.S.-sponsored capitalist globalization and related American
cultural hegemony (Noam Chomsky, 9-11;
NY: Seven Stories Press, 2001): “As for the bin-Laden network,
they have as little concern for globalization and cultural hegemony
as they do for the poor and oppressed people of the Middle East
who they have been severely harming for years. They tell us what
their concern are loud and clear: they are fighting a Holy War against
the corrupt, repressive, and ‘un-Islamist’ regimes of
the region, and their supporters, just as they fought a Holy War
against the Russians in the 1980s….Bin Laden himself has probably
never even heard of ‘globalization.’ Those who have interviewed
him in length, like Robert Fisk, report that he knows virtually
nothing of the world and doesn’t care to.” 

and in numerous other pieces that could be cited, Chomsky and others
on the left showed that they had no “stupid leftist” illusions
about the character of 9-11’s likely perpetrators. It was common
on the post-September left, in fact, to note that bin-Laden was
an extraordinarily wealthy man, a member of the same social class
as George W. Bush who didn’t care less about the Third World’s
poor and oppressed, and owed much of his terrorist capability precisely
to American empire. 

is true that the left rejected the mainstream U.S. claim, repeated
by the liberal-left, that Islamic hatred of progressive modernity
and the American “way of life” (whatever the relationship
between those) were the main motives behind the attacks. It is also
true that the left accompanied its post-9-11 writings and speeches
with some rather harsh commentary on the different ways that American
global policy generates hatred of the United States within the Middle
East and how that hatred provided fertile soil for the seeds of
anti-American terrorism. To say this is not, however, to believe
that the September 11 attacks were specifically motivated by a desire
to strike a blow at American imperialism. 

fact, the left actually downplayed grievances against U.S. empire
as the motivation behind 9-11. It suggested a very different
explanation fleshed out in the following readily available statement
from the ZNet site: “Why [did the terrrorists] commit a grotesquely
provocative act against a power so large, so armed, and so dangerous
as the United States? Perhaps provoking the United States was precisely
the intent. By provoking a massive military assault on one or more
Islamic nations, the perpetrators may hope to set off a cycle of
terror and counter-terror, precipitiating a holy war between the
Islamic world and the west, a war that they can lead and that they
may hope will result in the overthrow of all insufficiently Islamic
regimes and the unraveling of the United States, just as the Afghan
war contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union. Needless to say,
this scenario is insane on every count one can assess” (Albert
and Shalom, “Talking Points”). 

September 22, Chomsky argued, “Bin Laden’s prime target
is Saudi Arabia and other corrupt and repressive regimes of the
region, none of which are [by bin Laden’s estimate] truly ‘Islamic.’
He and his network are intent on supporting Muslims intent on defending
themselves against ‘infidels’ wherever it may be: Chechnya,
Bosnia, Kashmir, Western China, Southeast Asia, North Africa, maybe
elsewhere. They fought and won a Holy War to drive the Russians
out of Muslim Afghanistan, and they are even more intent on driving
the Americans out of Saudi Arabia, a far more important country
to them, as it is home to the holiest Islamic sites.” 

the October 18 talk at MIT, Chomsky made a crucial distinction “between
two categories, which shouldn’t be run together.” The
first category was the “actual perpetrators,” whom he
described in no uncertain terms as monstrous criminals. The second
was the significant “reservoir of [poplar] support” or
“at least sympathy” for attacks on the U.S. in the Middle
East, thanks to various well-known dark and deadly aspects of U.S.
policy in the region. Even in the second category, Chomsky noted,
much of the most significant support came not from the poor but
from Arab bankers, lawyers, and professionals—hardly the natural
enemies of capitalism championed by the advocates of “rag-tag

spoke and wrote quite clearly against the notion of terrorism as
the “weapon of the weak.” He argued that terrorism is
“primarily a weapon of the strong, overwhelmingly, in fact.
It is held to be a weapon of the weak because the strong also control
the doctrinal systems and their terror doesn’t count as terror.” 

Blaming the Victims? 

liberal-left suggestion that the left blamed the victims and not
the terrorists for the atrocities of 9-11 was shameless, unsubstantiated
radical-bashing, not serious criticism. Walzer could not and cannot
find anyone outside the lunatic fringe saying or writing anything
that comes even remotely close to holding the dead and maimed of
September 11 as responsible for their fate. 

is true that the left pointed out some uncomfortable facts regarding
the historical and ongoing role of U.S. policy in the Middle East.
It argued that the U.S. had been consistently and powerfully opposed
to the democratic process there, that its opposition contributed
to the “reservoir” of anti-Americanism that creates space
for terrorists to thrive, and that the U.S. has long contributed
critically in various ways, some direct, to the selection of medieval
extremism and terror over nonviolent resistance in the Arab world.
To note these facts was not, however, to embrace or apologize for
terror, unless, again, one clings to the imbecilic notion that to
understand a crime is to support it. 

use of Chomsky’s The New Military Humanism also
falls squarely into the cheap-shot category. Written more than a
year before September 11, 2001, that book never embraced the bombing
of Washington, London, or Jakarta. Also contrary to Issac, it made
more than a few “policy relevant distinctions” between
the humanitarian crimes committed in Kosovo and East Timor. Chomsky
argued that those distinctions, including the comparative sheer
quantity of death and destruction inflicted by state terrorists
(much greater in the case U.S.- and UK-sponsored Indonesian assault
on East Timor than in the case of Serbia’s attack on Kosovo)
made Washington more deserving of punitive bombing than Belgrade
in a world where it was deemed appropriate to punish state crimes
against humanity with deadly international attacks on the criminal
states’ civilian populations. It was clear, however, that neither
Chomsky nor anyone else on the serious left even remotely embraced
or embraces such a world. His argument was rhetorical, meant to
illustrate the inconsistency of U.S. foreign policy and rhetoric
and not to embrace the horrible actions that would result from the
argument being made consistent in policy. Issac’s contention
regarding Chomsky’s text was hideous enough in and of itself.
To insert this appalling argument into his post 9-11 smear of Chomsky
was doubly lacking in basic decency, leftist or otherwise. 

Advocating No Response? 

liberal-left is terribly wrong, finally, to claim that the left
has advanced and advances no response to the terror attacks and
the threat of future terrorism. Both before and since 9/11, Chomsky
and others on the left have spoken and published at length on the
superiority and desirability of an approach to world tensions that
relies on international law, multilateral negotiation, and global
social justice and democracy. They have insisted that there are
some very basic things that American policy makers can do to prevent
future terror attacks, including removing
U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern bases, dropping
the sanctions that have killed more than half a million Iraqi children,
and taking a much firmer position on Israel, forcing that state,
which relies heavily on U.S. assistance, to dramatically change
its treatment of the Palestinians. Leftists have also suggested
that America develop alternative energy sources to lessen American
society’s environmentally disastrous dependence on Middle Eastern
oil and thereby reduce America’s “need” to be engaged
in the Middle East in the first place.
preference for such non-violent actions, embraced less in the name
of pacifism than of basic desires for violence-reduction, increased
security (including that of Americans) at home and abroad and elementary
principles of civilization, has been consistently evident in left
commentary. By saying that the left advocates “doing nothing,”
the liberal-left hopes to cloak its apparent definition of doing
something with bombing innocent civilians and the expansion of U.S.
state terrorism. 

Selective Targeting 

deep servility to power, there was a delicious selectivity at the
root of Hitchens, Walzer, and Isaac focus on radicals. To be consistent
across ideological lines, they should have leveled their inaccurate
charges of moral relativist excuse mongering at the Wall
Street Journal.
The Journal ran a candid September 18

describing the broad basis of approval for the attacks among even
affluent residents of the Middle East. Many of the latter were reported
by the Journal as thinking “that what happened in New
York is not all that different from what America has inflicted on
Iraqis, Palestinians, Sudanese, and other Muslims.” A related
Journal dispatch reported that sympathy for America’s
victims in the Arab world was “qualified with a reflexive twinge
of satisfaction that the U.S. was at last paying a price for its
strong support of Israel and its insistence on sanctions against
Iraq, Libya, Syria, and other states.” 

mainstream corporate Newsweek would have been a yet more
appropriate target for left-liberal attacks on those who have the
temerity to explain middle-eastern anti-American terror. Under the
title of “Why Do They Hate Us?” that magazine’s October
15 cover story offered an extensive discussion of how imperial U.S.
policies in the Middle East—the same ones emphasized by Bin-Laden
et al—create massive “raw anti-Americanism” across
the region. The article was written by Fareed Zakaria, a onetime
managing editor of Foreign Affairs who supported the U.S.
bombing campaign in Afghanistan.  

even better target would have been the Chicago Tribune. On
Sunday, September 30, that paper’s “Perspectives”
section contained a piece titled “A New World Disordered: the
Seeds of Terror Thrive in Poor Ground” by international correspondent
R.C. Longworth. Longworth argued that savage inequalities and the
related mass unemployment generated by U.S.-sponsored corporate
globalization created fertile soil for terrorism even while it opens
Americans to easy attack. “If any region has got the worst
of the global economy, but none of the best,” Longworth elaborated,
“it is the Middle East.” 

quoted a former U.S. Commerce Department official, William Van Dusen
Wishard, to chilling effect. According to Wishard, “in a globalized
world with instant communications, it is impossible to have excessive
opulence alongside grinding poverty without something, sometime,
somewhere, exploding. We Americans have flaunted our affluence and
power in the face of the world, and the world has reacted in varying
degrees, terrorism being only the most extreme form of reaction.”
There are many more examples, including USA Today, which
provided a discussion of the roots of the new Arab anti-Americanism
in the facts of an imperial U.S. policy. 

ultimate missing targets in the left-liberals’ attack on terrorism’s
supposed apologists (well, explainers), however, was the U.S. policy
establishment. Liberal-leftists on the hunt for the argument that
terrorist attacks on American targets are a predictable result of
American empire should have reviewed a report produced in 1997 by
the Defense Science Board for the U.S. Undersecretary of Defense
for Acquisition and Technology. This elite study found, “historical
data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international
situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United
States. In addition,” it continued, “the military asymmetry
that denies nation states the ability to engage in overt attacks
against the United States drives the use of transnational actors
[that is, international terrorists].” 

looking for dangerous people who argue that imperial chickens come
home to roost in terrible ways might also wish to investigate the
recent millennial vision statements of the U.S. Space Command and
the CIA. Both predict increasing terrorist threats to “U.S.
national interests and investments” resulting from U.S.-sponsored
economic “globalization,” which they acknowledge—quite
contrary to official U.S. statements on the alleged universal benefits
of “free trade”—to be widening the gap between the
planet’s “haves” and “have-nots.” 

were and are many other examples of establishment candor on the
dangerous backlash that empire creates. As the distinguished senior
Far East scholar Chalmers Johnson has shown, the U.S. Central Intelligence
Agency has long used, internally, the phrase “blowback”
to describe the unintended consequences (including terrorist attacks
on American soil) of secret U.S. foreign policies. “Blow- back,”
writes Johnson in his chillingly prophetic Blowback: The Costs
and Consequences of American Empire
, based largely on establishment
sources, “is shorthand for saying that a nation reaps what
it sows, even if it does not fully know or understand what it has
sown. Given its wealth and power, the United States will be a prime
recipient in the foreseeable future of all of the more expectable
forms of blowback, particularly terrorist attacks against Americans
in and out of the armed forces anywhere on earth, including within
the United States.” 

largely due to 9-11, things are difficult enough for those who believe
in social justice in the United States without the progressive community
diving into an orgy of internecine warfare. In the hope of restoring
some unity on the more leftward side of American life and in the
interest of its own integrity, the liberal left should tear down
some of the straw dogs it has built up in the wake of last September’s
terrible events. The liberal-left attack on post-9-11 left commentary
is based on extraordinary misrepresentation of what the left actually
said and wrote about the historic crimes inflicted on America last
summer. It is only basic decency to consult the real record of those
you judge.                        Z 

Paul Street is a freelance writer and social policy researcher
in Chicago, Illinois. His essays and reviews have appeared in
Magazine, Monthly Review, Dissent, and the Journal of Social