Real Problems On The Real Left

Real Problems on the Real Left

I want to thank Michael Albert for the chance to reply to Edward Herman’s characterization of the “cruise missile left” in the November issue of Z.  I have criticized Christopher Hitchens’ acerbic name-calling in the past, and so I will not reply to Herman’s in kind.  I will therefore respect the term Herman chooses for himself and his compatriots — the “real left.”  Likewise, I will not take the bait Herman offers when he suggests that in the 1850’s, he and his friends would have been abolitionists whereas people like me, Marc Cooper, Todd Gitlin, and Michael Walzer would have made our accommodations with slaveowners and their sympathizers.  Herman’s self-satisfaction on this score is all too common among those white Americans who insist that theirs was always the side of the angels on race matters, and I will not compete with him for the moral high ground of the 1850s.  I will say only that I find his analogy between advocates of the overthrow of the Taliban and antebellum defenders of slavery to be every bit as convincing as his attempt to construe my opposition to war in Iraq — along with Cooper’s, Gitlin’s, and Walzer’s resolute opposition to war in Iraq — as a form of support for war in Iraq.

I do, however, want to set the record straight on what I did and did not say about Noam Chomsky and Afghanistan in the pages of the Boston Globe.  Herman’s (and Chomsky’s) distortions here are significant, and leftists of conscience should not let them go unremarked.

I did not criticize Chomsky for repeating a September 16, 2001 New York Times report that the US had ordered the interruption of food and aid convoys to Afghanistan.  I did not criticize Chomsky for speaking out on behalf of starving Afghans.  Perhaps I should have credited him for speaking out at all, at a time when most Americans were thinking only of revenge.  But Chomsky took the Times report and inflated it into the hysterical — yes, hysterical — charge that the US had ordered Pakistan “to kill possibly millions of people.”  Chomsky’s original words were these:  “the U.S. has demanded that Pakistan kill possibly millions of people who are themselves victims of the Taliban.  This has nothing to do even with revenge.  It is at a far lower moral level even than that. . . .  We can learn a great deal about the moral level of the reigning intellectual culture of the West by observing the reaction to this demand.”  Those were the words with which I took issue, and I did so because I believed Chomsky was wrong to overstate so hyperbolically the legitimate concerns of UN aid workers, and to suggest that he and his followers constituted an island of intellectual honesty in a sea of moral reprobates.  A month after conducting that interview, Chomsky further inflated this claim into the incendiary charge that the US was engaged in a “silent genocide” in Afghanistan.  This is precisely the kind of political abuse of language against which Chomsky so eloquently protests whenever a Pentagon official blithely speaks of “collateral damage,” and leftists of conscience, I think, should criticize it wherever it appears.

As Herman notes, Chomsky himself wrote to the Boston Globe in response to my essay; his letter was published on Sept. 22, along with my reply.  Chomsky’s response quotes the Radio B92 (Belgrade) interview I cited, but crucially excises, by way of a sly and misleading ellipsis, the very words to which I was objecting.  Herman’s followup “Cruise Missile Left” essay does the same.  The effect — quite intentional, of course — is to portray Chomsky’s critics as either unconcerned with, or worse, downright gleeful about, the prospect of killing innocent Afghans.  (In Herman’s words, “Berube was repelled by this expression of concern over the possible deadly effects of curtailment of the food supply that were anticipated by international aid personnel.”)  This is simple intellectual dishonesty, and it is especially distressing when it comes from people like Chomsky and Herman who are quite convinced of their own moral probity in the face of corrupt and compromised cruise missile leftists who aren’t really leftists at all.  But for leftists of conscience, I suggest, the fact that Chomsky and Herman cannot own up to Chomsky’s actual words does more to discredit them than I ever could.

So much for my self-defense; there are bigger fish to fry here.  Herman’s discussion of the July wedding-party massacre at Kakrak is, I believe, indicative of the real weaknesses of the “real left.”  Herman criticizes me sharply for calling this massacre an “atrocity,” for clearly, I have not gone far enough; by now I am too thoroughly “aligned with power” to be sufficiently critical of the US.  I merely believe that the US failed even to attempt to substantiate the unfounded claims that al-Qaeda sympathizers were hiding in Kakrak, and wound up killing innocents at the behest of some factional thug rather than sending our own troops into Kakrak to make an independent report.  Herman, by contrast, insists that the incident was in fact a deliberate war crime, a conscious and gratuitous attempt on the part of the American military to kill Afghan civilians, just as he claims that the American military wantonly and intentionally killed Afghan civilians all throughout the war, in bombings that were “as premeditated a form of killing as shooting each of them individually.”  Herman is of course free to hold these beliefs, and to publish them wherever he can, just as I am free to believe otherwise.  But Herman should not be surprised if his views on such matters render him marginal to serious political debate, and he should not be so self-congratulatory as to take his marginality as a sign of his secret virtue.  My full sentence on Kakrak read as follows:  “The anti-imperialist left correctly believes, for instance, that the American bombing of Kakrak in early July (a massive ‘intelligence failure’ that killed about 50 Afghans attending a wedding party) was an atrocity; but it cannot admit that, on balance, the routing of the Taliban might have struck a blow, however ambiguous and poorly executed, for human freedom.”  I suppose I should be grateful to Herman for proving my point about the “real left” so dramatically.  And so I will wish him and his “real left” the best of luck in their attempt to forge a broad, popular movement against war in Iraq, a movement built on the proposition that the US military action in Afghanistan was a deliberate and calculated crime against humanity greater in scale than the attacks of September 11.  My guess is that they will need it.

Leave a comment