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Searching for a Better Left (cont.)

The post 9/11 angst of the American left rolls on.

11:20 AM, Sep 12, 2002 • By LEE BOCKHORN
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IN MARCH, I wrote a piece touting Michael Walzer's provocative essay, "Can There Be a Decent Left?" which appeared in the Spring issue of Dissent magazine. Walzer critiqued the most egregious responses of his fellow lefties to September 11, declaring that the left had "lost its bearings" and needed to "begin again" by jettisoning the "stupid, overwrought, [and] grossly inaccurate" portrait of America it had clung to since the Vietnam war.

In response, I wrote that "the challenge for well-meaning lefties like Walzer and [Todd] Gitlin is to convince their fellow 'progressives' that loyalty to the real America they wake up to every morning--the one most leftists find so horrible and disgusting, and so deserving of their utter contempt--is compatible with true leftist politics. I have my doubts."

My skepticism has mostly been confirmed, especially when you consider that the daily bulletin board of American left-liberalism--the New York Times op-ed page--is, even at this late date, publishing the likes of Susan Sontag, rather than serious, self-critical pieces like Walzer's. And when you take into account the success of Noam Chomsky's screed "9/11," which has already sold hundreds of thousands of copies, or the popularity among the left of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's ridiculous book "Empire," it appears Walzer and friends aren't having much luck changing the hearts and minds of their comrades.

Still, there are occasional glimmers of hope. The latest example is Adam Shatz's piece in the September 23 issue of the Nation. Shatz offers a no-holds-barred survey of left-wing opinion on American foreign policy since September 11. The picture he offers is one of utter intellectual confusion, a "fog of war" that has "grown thicker and thicker," with leftists both deeply divided among themselves and even within their own individual minds. He claims that "the question that has vexed" the majority of American leftists is "where to draw the line between self-defense and imperial aggrandizement."

In the midst of the left's bewilderment, two extreme paradigms have taken over the intra-left debate, according to Shatz. The first is Chomsky's "jaundiced perspective on American power," which "makes it virtually impossible to contemplate the possibility of just American military interventions, either for self-defense or to prevent genocide." The second is Christopher Hitchens's "intoxicated embrace of American power," which "has left him less and less capable of drawing the line between humanitarian intervention and rogue-state adventurism."

Between these two extremes, Shatz believes the left needs to cultivate "an intelligent synthesis, one that recognizes that the United States has a role to play in the world while also warning of the dangers of an imperial foreign policy." But based on the evidence Shatz offers, it seems doubtful that such a synthesis on the left will be found. Shatz admits that the left's flaccid participation in the debate over Iraq demonstrates that "such a synthesis remains elusive," since leftists cannot even agree among themselves about why they should oppose war with Iraq.

But perhaps there is a way out. In the September issue of the Atlantic, David Brooks, my infinitely wiser and more talented Weekly Standard colleague, wrote a piece bemoaning the lack of a modern-day Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr was the famous Christian theologian and liberal public intellectual whose influence on American politics and foreign policy peaked during World War II and the early years of the Cold War. Brooks concluded that perhaps a modern-day Niebuhr--"a thinker who simultaneously believes in using power and is keenly aware that its use is inevitably corrupting"--could help the left achieve something like the "intelligent synthesis" Shatz has in mind.

"If nothing else," Brooks writes, "such a thinker might bring those who are wary of gung-ho Americanism into a grudging alliance with the interventionists. If there is going to be a hawkish left in America again, a left suspicious of power but willing to use it to defend freedom, it will have to be revived by a modern-day Reinhold Niebuhr."