Thursday, July 12, 2007

What's Left?

Last night I went to Dissent's launch party at Book Court in Brooklyn, in part because I have fond memories of my internship at Dissent during college, and in part because, as a graduate student, I get masochistic joy out of being in a store filled with full-price books. The main event was Paul Berman moderating a discussion with Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow and Charles Taylor (no, not that one), two writers from the summer issue. Berman asked how to critique the left "from the left," and more specifically, how the left can take a moral stand of its own, rather than simply opposing restrictions enacted or proposed by the right. But the crux of the discussion was how you can hold opinions unpopular on the left without losing your leftist credentials. Or, in particular, to reassure those on the left who have doubts about unlimited abortion rights, or who want to stop the spread of radical Islamism, that they are still more Upper West than Upper East, no matter what anyone may say.

As the talk was coming to an end, it hit me that the better question would be why bother calling yourself 'on the left' when you disagree with much of what the left as it actually exists has to say, and agree with at least as much (or on the issues you find most important) with the right as with the left. In the Q&A session, I asked Berman, Tuhus-Dubrow, and Taylor if and why, at a time when many on the right, especially the more libertarian right, are unhappy with the Bush administration (and so "right" does not mean "supports Bush," nor does the opposite imply "left"), and when much of the left stands for things they assert they do not like (turning a blind eye to human-rights violations in Islamic countries in the name of cultural and religious autonomy), do they persist in identifying themselves as 'of the left'?

Taylor--who began his portion of the talk discussing how much of a relief it was, on September 13, 2001, to see a Times Square billboard of Britney Spears flashing a thong, something only a democracy would allow-- said he wasn't so sure he considered himself on the left, after being called a "commie" for his more left-wing sentiments, then a neocon for his desire for America to bring democracy to the Middle East, as well as his belief that democracy is unquestionably better than theocracy. At various points earlier in the talk, Berman had noted that he (Berman) uses 'right,' as in 'correct,' to mean 'politically on the left.' He also repeated that, if you write for Dissent, you are defining yourself as on the left but critical of the left; so much for Taylor.Then came Tuhus-Dubrow. The first reason she listed for being on the left was that she was raised by hippie parents. If politics are hereditary, then why bother trying to convince anyone of anything? It seemed a poor reason to identify one or another way politically, but then she said she wasn't sure what to make of all the labels, but that overall she still considers herself to be on the left. She didn't seem altogether convinced.

After the two writers answered my question, a man in the audience spoke up and pointed out that Berman had not yet done so. I was most curious to see what Berman thought, since I remember finding his 2004 article on why he, as a leftist, favored the Iraq war fascinating. He answered, in what has to have been the most surreal of any experience I've had in a long time, with a lengthy discussion of the Dreyfus Affair, presumably intended for those who know nothing about it. His point was that there are two lefts, one that actually exists, another that exists in an ideal world; he is aligned with the latter. He used the Dreyfus Affair to show that while initially the French socialists were on the "wrong," anti-Dreyfus side, they eventually came around, thanks to Jaures. He explained that while those on the left are in practice almost always wrong, and while those on the right occasional say things like "the sun rises in the East," (his example), the left stands for what's good, or something like that. He also failed to make a clear distinction between 'left' and 'intellectual,' implying that the latter was nothing more than a subset of the former. He also failed to mention that not only were these fin-de-siecle French socialists initially wrong about Dreyfus, but the beast that was to become modern French anti-Semitism was if anything more a product of the left (because Jews were/are supposed to be rich) than of the right, where the anti-Semitism was more of a pre-modern, Christian variant. Nor did he include the the 'correct about Dreyfus' camp thinkers like Theodor Herzl, undoubtedly an intellectual and more an aristocrat-lover than a 'commie.'

And so, after all that, I still do not understand why it's worth being of-but-critical-of the left, rather than going right or finding a third path, when you disagree with almost everything said on the left. I can understand being critical of a side you almost always find yourself on, but there's a moment when internal criticism begins to look like criticism from the outside. (I am picturing a man I just saw in a "Jews for Jesus" t-shirt). Why, if as seems to be the case for Berman, your position is to support whichever answer to a political question is morally correct, must you pick one side or the other? (And, more importantly, did Alvy Singer's magazine-merge prediction come true?)

This to me is the appeal of political labels that are not left-right specific. Political labels should be invoked if they have explanatory power, which in this case 'left' certainly did not. Personally, I am enthusiastic about neither the left nor the right, the Democrats nor the Republicans; for whatever reason, descriptions like "Zionist" or "libertarian" seem to be getting at something more tangible, and while I do not agree with every view classified as Zionist or as libertarian--nor are the two necessarily consistent, especially when it comes to US policy--they go a bit further in explaining how I see the world than do classifications derived from an intuitive sense that left is 'good' and right 'bad' or vice versa.


Anonymous said...

You ask: why call yourself left if you disagree with the left.

This is a great question and kudos to you for asking it.

I'll tell you why, and since you're in academia you will discover this for yourself: People like Berman use it to make a career for themselves, a career they would not otherwise be able to create. Berman has never been published by a major publisher, but there is a whole little insular cottage community engaged in this activity of talking aobut "the left" and criticizing "the left," not in any substantive fashion, but Oh, the pleasures and marketability of a bleating individual conscience!--especially if it's saying the same thing as the previous guy.

They talk mostly to each other and have very little scholarly credibility. (This was fortunate for them).

But now, 9/11 and Iraq has given them the opportunity to approach a larger audience.

Expect the charade to unravel. But, not until the mid-east fall out hits.

josh.musket said...

From the left, I criticize the center that masquerades as the left. However, I find myself amongst many people who fail to think critically and don't give what we stand for much depth of thought, so they far too often swerve into... something else. And it breaks it all.