My Left Behind
“Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.” [Ambrose Bierce, “Devil’s Dictionary,” 1911]
The regular contributors here have made formal introductions of themselves. I’m afraid I’ve been rude, and simply waded into the fray. Belatedly, I’ll try to tell you a little about how I came to think as I do about current events. Those who have read my writing elsewhere will recognize a lot of this and should skip on lest you be bored. Some of you who haven’t read my other stuff may want to skip for the same reason. I’ll try to keep it brief. I’ll fail.
I grew up thinking that, and I identified myself as a liberal. What may surprise some of you is, I still do.
A liberal believes change can be good, especially when guided by a spirit of free inquiry and a firm sense of what is right and when it aims to increase human freedom and let people run their own lives. A liberal believes people are basically good, and they can, and want to, make their lives better. It’s a faith enshrined in Bobby Kennedy’s quote (nicked from G.B. Shaw) about “seeing things that never were” and saying, “why not?”
A liberal believes the values enshrined in the Bill of Rights are true human values, not merely cultural artifacts. The West has no gift from the gods, and our citizens are not better than those of other lands, but we’ve set up these principles as our collective guide and have committed ourselves to live by them, when right, and be corrected by them, when wrong.
Many commentaries have been written by the “Left Behinds” since Sept. 11, explaining how we haven’t changed, but our old party and peers seem to have abandoned the ideals we thought we held in common, for the sake of another set that we never realized were their true passion.
Such writing almost forms an online genre, and it has been mocked, sometimes deservedly. Messy break-ups acted out in public, plates flying, shouts of “I feel like I don’t know you anymore!” Possibly all this is no deep matter. The evolution of a mildly radical young man to a mildly conservative middle-aged one is among the oldest stories. Yet I feel neither “conservative” nor evolved. I still believe I’m upholding the values of my liberal youth, albeit in a different form.
I don’t blame George W. Bush, or even Sept. 11. Bill Clinton laid the groundwork for this. I was one of the reflexively “suspicious of military solutions” Americans whose change of heart took place over time, beginning in the death of Yugoslavia. I read the news wire day after day as a brutal thugs slowly strangled Sarajevo — the kind of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic community we all supposedly aspire to in America. I saw the pictures of the young lovers gunned down on Vrbanja Bridge, and I thought, “somebody, do something.”
When the U.S. used its military power to stop Milosevic, at his next attempt, I cheered that, and I realized that not every extension of American power is a bad thing. Always innocent lives will be lost, always women and children will suffer most. In war, America loses its illusion of innocence. But that illusion is not our best quality. War is always a tragedy, but it’s not always the worst tragedy.
But when the Chomskyites and others on the Left embraced Milosevic as a victim of Yankee imperialism, I realized, I’m no longer on that side. For as long as I’ve been paying tax dollars, I’ve watched them being used prop up one megalomaniac rapist dictator or another. It’s been nice to see them used to bring those bastards down, for a change.
In Lower Merion High School in the 1970s,we were taught the U.S. was no better than Nazi Germany because we ran internment camps for Japanese while they ran concentration camps for Jews. Someone actually had the temerity (Latin for “chutzpah”) — the to say that in a public high school like mine, which was about 40 percent Jewish, in a class where many of the students’ grandparents had numbers tattooed on their forearms.
Maybe it helps if you read a bit, as I was doing then. If you just look at the sentence structure: “internment camps for Japanese/concentration camps for Jews,” why, yes, it does look the same. It seems to be saying the same thing in slightly different words.
This never stops coming in handy. The “Star of David = Swastika” flag got to be so tiresome at Palestinian demonstrations that they seem to have retired it, or maybe they lost it. (Now they just hold up their children, dolled up with fake guns and cardboard dynamite.) But in Europe, I read, it’s become so popular in intellectual circles to identify Israel with the Third Reich that it passes for a test of political correctness.
And you can still get an eye-full of the “Star of David = Swastika” banners over here in the U.S., in the hands of “non-conformists” who seem to regard this symbolic connection as an inspiration of wisdom, rather than what it is: a lie so absurd as to be puke-making.
One day last year, a co-worker insisted I listen to a Celtic-accented “folk song” called “When Oppressed Becomes Oppressor” (or something like that; that was the repeated line in the chorus, anyway) in which, yet again, a parallel was drawn between the genocide of the Jews in Europe in the 1940s and the hardships of Palestinians today.
Let’s just take half a second and do some comparisons.
Bulldozers do not equal gas chambers. A concrete barrier does not equal a crematorium. The false claim that Jews burned the Reichstag does not equate to the blood and bone strewn on the pavement after bombings of buses and discos in Tel Aviv.
But Jews leaving all their property behind in a desperate bid to escape the Third Reich, to any country that would take them, offers an interesting parallel to the Palestinian Authority’s insistence on a “right of return,” for its people to live under the yoke of the despised “Zionist entity.” Correct me if I am wrong, but I do not recall Jews lined up every morning on the borders of 1939 Germany, clamoring to get in for construction jobs and medical care.
All this nonsense usually comes, of course, from people who cherish their democratic right of vocal and public dissent, who like to live in a country where you can be openly gay or atheist or flaunt your belly-button ring. Try that anywhere in the Middle East except Israel; see how long you last.
If reading helps, travel does, too. In my youth, during the Cold War, “left” and “right” generally stood for “communist” and “anti-communist.” But this was a false dichotomy and I got an early education in that.
Communism never attracted me. I skipped Marx and read Rousseau, Kropotkin, Godwin, Paine, Gandhi, Paul Goodman, that sort of thing. I decided I was an anarchist (by which I mean a follower of political anarchism, not a shop-window-smashing pursuer of anarchy), or at least that description came closest to what I felt. I embraced the romanticism and somehow overlooked the silliness of it. You can do that when you’re 18 and there’s not a shooting war on.
Twice, in the late 1970s, when I was a teen-ager, I lived in West Berlin and spent some time across the wall in East Germany. It was the most “conservative” place I have ever been. Nothing changed. Ever. No one experimented. It lacked color, even on a sunny day; no discos, no pool halls. The neon decadence of the Ku-damm in West Berlin might have been on another planet, not just across the wall. In the company of other students, I took a tour of historic sites in the East — Potsdam, Frederick the Great’s palaces. Our tour guide was an employee of the state. No doubt she was chosen particularly to lead this cluster of young Americans. Perhaps the bureaucrats thought they had picked someone to convince us of the virtues of the People’s Republic.
A few of us, including our American teacher guide, spent a lot of time up at the front of the bus between stops, chatting with her. She was a matronly woman, to all appearances good-natured and honest. We probed her about life in the DDR. She said she would never want to live anywhere else. It suited her just fine. In upholding the virtues of her system, she said something I’ll always remember: “when my children go out of the house, I don’t have to worry about where they are.”
At one of the palaces on this tour, we happened to pass a line of Hungarian students of about our own age (guided by their own government-supplied minder). They practically broke through the velvet ropes to get to us and pepper us with questions about life in America. They scrawled down addresses and pressed them on us. By the time our respective guides had herded us all on, we on the U.S. side got a clear impression of their restlessness and their hunger for a way of life we took for granted.
This was odd because, back in the U.S., all the anti-com-ya-nists I knew were grumps and blue-hairs who saw the Beatles and blue jeans as evidences of socialist corruption, and all the self-professed communists were layabout bohemians with “Che” buttons on their ratty army surplus jackets. It was easy to see which of them would have found life better in the Worker’s Paradise of East Germany.
I didn’t see at the time how much of the “liberal” view was simply an anti-American one. Many of the people advocating it didn’t really care about Marxism-Leninism, except insofar as the idea of their advocating it pissed off their parents. Many of them also didn’t really care about North Vietnamese or South Africans, except insofar as those people were shaking their fists at the company daddy runs.
In Europe, I also met Kurds. I met them in taverns and hostels in Nuremburg, because, for some reason, the small town of FÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¼rth, near there, was a center for black market passports. They were refugees who had escaped ahead of Saddam’s death squads after the U.S. had pulled its support from them. This was the moment Iraq shifted from Soviet satellite to U.S. client in containing the Ayatollah. These Kurds weren’t bitter against Americans. They understood war and politics and betrayal. They wanted to come to the U.S., too, to bide their time and live the life.
When I read about Kurdistan today, I wonder if any of the young men I met in Nuremburg in 1979 survived and are now among the leaders of that reborn land. I was on their side instinctively in 1979; I’m on their side now. An indigenous secular-Islamic people, victims of decades of official repression, fascist attempts to eradicate their culture and literally wipe them off the face of the earth. Brutally murdered with the complicity — at least — of the U.S. government. This ought to be a no-brainer for a true “liberal.”
But instead the liberals I know have no interest at all in the Kurds, because the Kurds made the unforgivable mistake of liberating themselves with the help of American military power. That makes them the bad guys, because the only indigenous people too many modern liberals approve are those that burn American flags.
Back in the day, plenty of wingnuts on the right simply opposed anything that the U.S.S.R. embraced, whether the thing itself was good or bad. But it also seems to me the John Birch types largely have been marginalized in the “conservative” wing, while the “loony” contingent has claimed a lot of core ground in the intellectual circles of the “left.” Think of Chomsky denying the Cambodian holocaust because, well, any indigenous power that rises up to oppose American military hegemony must, de facto, be a good and benevolent thing. (Hell, you don’t have to go to Cambodia: just think of a turgid, tenured professor at MIT being held up as the champion of the world’s oppressed.)
A few years ago, Christopher Hitchens (in NYT Book Review) pointed out that the true, best heir of the 1960s youth Revolution is Vaclav Havel. Unlike the Western hippies, his revolution — wrapped in blue jeans and non-violence and rock music — really did overthrow a repressive, dour authoritarian state. Yet the heirs of the ’60s in the West have little use for him. They cling to Castro.