The Blog

Fighting the Old New Left

As the war on terrorism continues, will conservatives have to re-fight the ideological battles of the '60s and '70s?

11:01 PM, Feb 14, 2002 • By DAVID BROOKS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THE AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE threw its big annual dinner Wednesday night. The speaker, Norman Podhoretz, delivered an eloquent tribute to America and the Bush administration. He described what the war on terror is really about. But he also delivered a startling warning: He predicted that we are in the first phases of a great ideological fight, comparable to the ideological wars that divided Americans during the Cold War and during the war in Vietnam. Podhoretz reminded us that in the mid-1960s, the Vietnam War was popular with the public and in the media. But a small group of intellectuals, many of them motivated by deep and pre-existing anti-American impulses, launched a full scale assault on American institutions, on the establishment, on the ideas that animate the country, and on the very notion that America is a just and great society. This small intellectual band grew and grew and ended up toppling the old power structure.

Today, Podhoretz continued, the heirs of the New Left are strong and well-entrenched. They dominate political discourse in the universities. Their ideas trickle down and influence the media, Hollywood, and the minds of all Americans. What this country now needs, he concluded, is an intellectual mobilization to go along with the military mobilization. As soldiers defeat the Axis of Evil, the intellectuals who support the war on terror will be required to launch a full scale assault on the brigades of Sontagism and Chomsky-ism, who will emerge as full scale opponents of American actions.

This was a sobering message. The room Podhoretz addressed was full of people who take ideas seriously. Yet I suspect few of them had considered the possibility that we may be entering a period of ideological strife comparable to the 1960s or even the 1950s. If we are in fact entering such a period, people will look back on Podhoretz's speech as a great and prophetic moment.

Will his prophecy come true?

A lot depends on the success of our armed forces. If the next stages of the war are as successful as the first stages, it is hard to imagine there will be widespread dissent, as Podhoretz acknowledged. (Imagine, by the way, how the sixties would have looked if the war in Vietnam had been prosecuted successfully. No anti-war movement. No mass New Left. No politicized rock culture. No Woodstock. No Abbie Hoffman. No Black Panthers. And on and on. Military events have profound political and cultural implications.)

But even if there are setbacks and longueurs in the war on terror (as there were in the war on communism), I'm still not sure Podhoretz is right to predict an imminent ideological conflict.

Part of this, I admit, is temperament. I'm a Panglossian--as anybody my age should be. But I also think we will not repeat the sort of ideological strife we experienced during the Cold War because we have learned from that great argument. We have been through all that. In the 1960s, it was plausible to think that Norman Mailer, Jimi Hendrix, the student radicals, and the New York Review of Books crowd were the avant-garde. It was possible, and maybe even exciting, to imagine that they were the bright and radically novel future and that LBJ and Richard Nixon were the past.

But now, to borrow a Thatcherite phrase, the New Left is yesterday's vision of the future. There may be radicals in the universities who say stupid things. Susan Sontag may be inane. Norman Mailer may be his own worst enemy (or second worst, as long as Norman Podhoretz is around). But nobody thinks these people are important. Students at all universities regard them not only as wrong, worse, they regard them as stale. The same view is held by most liberal reporters, and, in my experience, most liberal academics.

The people who blamed America for the September 11 attack are worth ridiculing. I loved all the Idiocy Watch features in the various magazines and web pages. But these people are not worth refuting. It takes too much time. They refute themselves.

The end of the Cold War--the unraveling of the Soviet Union--had a profound intellectual effect. It reminded a new generation that America fought a long and great struggle for freedom. Despite some mistakes, America was basically in the right, and the people who fought anti-communism were basically in the wrong.

Norman Podhoretz fought that difficult fight. Because of people like him, and because of the lessons he taught us, we are not going to have to fight the same fight over again. There may be other big arguments in our future, but Americans of all stripes are now better equipped to tell the difference between American freedom and the Axis of Evil's tyranny.

David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.