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Towards A 'Decent Left'

Liberal-Left misrepresentation of Left commentary on 9-11

Towards A 'Decent Left'
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The Liberal-Left Attack

Among the many dark aspects of September 11th's aftermath we might include the intensification of internal division within an American left that was already rather snippy with itself. This latest intra-"progressive" unpleasantness has been a fairly one-sided affair, with most of the heat coming from the more centrist liberal-left, associated with journals like Dissent and American Prospect and writers like Michael Walzer, Jeffrey Issac, and Christopher Hitchens. It has been directed at the more radical left (hereafter "the left"), associated primarily with Z Magazine, ZNet, and - insofar as the liberal-left is willing to name names - Noam Chomsky. It is focused significantly on the left's interpretation of the September attacks, which liberal-leftists see (or claim to see) as grotesquely irresponsible.

The essential liberal-left accusation, repeated and updated in the Spring issue of Dissent (a journal in which I have published two major articles on domestic policy), is that the left excused and even to some extent approved of 9-11. There are three basic related variants of the liberal-left's charge:

  • The left rationalized 9-11 because it spoke about the roles that imperial United States foreign policy and related Middle Eastern poverty played in creating the context for the rise of anti-American terror networks and sentiment in the Middle East and because it noted that the US and its clients were responsible for massive terror across the world past and present.
  • The left excused terror as the only weapon left to the weak and powerless, forgetting that terror is the reflection of the morally flawed human agency of people who have failed to build a strong political relationship with the masses they claim to represent.
  • The left naively saw 9-11 through "rag-tag Marxist" eyes as some sort of virtuous anti-imperialist response to the interrelated evils of world-capitalist inequality, corporate globalization and US hegemony.

Walzer even accuses the left of reveling in the attacks and thinking that the victims of 9-11 deserved their fate because they were beneficiaries of empire. He is so disgusted by radical's "self-hating" refusal to sign up with the official explanations of and response to 9-11 that he wonders, "Can there be a Decent Left?"

These are serious charges, aimed straight at the left's moral integrity. It is a fairly straightforward and elementary matter, however, to show that the liberal-left attack misrepresents what radicals actually said and wrote about the causes and meaning of 9-11.

Making Excuses and Reveling in the Attacks?

The left has consistently denounced the September jetliner attacks as what Chomsky on October 18th called "a horrendous atrocity, probably the most devastating instant human toll of any crime in history, outside of war". "U.S. Crimes" wrote Stephen Shalom and Mike Albert in October, " in no way justify or excuse the attacks of September 11. Terror is an unacceptable response to U.S. crimes." At a September 18th forum at Northern Illinois University, I opened by saying that "the September 11th terror attacks on the World Trade Center were hideously and horribly evil…Whoever ordered, financed, and directed the assault …must be found and held accountable for their colossal crime."

These sorts of statements are not good enough for the liberal-left. It seems to think the left excused and even approved of 9-11 because leftists had the audacity to question the official Bush and New York Times line that America was targeted because of its supposed special commitment to freedom and democracy. The left dared to discuss some of the factors that helped "create a [Middle Eastern] environment conducive to recruiting people to commit" horrible acts against the US. Those factors included the widespread and understandable feeling among Arabs that "the U.S. obstructs freedom and democracy as well as material plenty for others;" U.S. support of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians; U.S. support for authoritarian regimes that supply US corporations with huge profits and powerful opposition to movements that oppose those profits; U.S. promotion of a global economic system that creates massive poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere, etc (Mike Albert and Stephen Shalom, Z Net's September 11 Talking Points.

Also reprehensible to the liberal-left was the left's insistence on seeing 9-11 in comparative and historical context. Chomsky and others had the impertinence to note that 9-11's terrible human consequences have been matched and gone beyond by numerous terrorist actions conducted by the US and its clients, including the Reagan administration's campaign against Nicaragua and the Clinton administration's brazen bombing of Sudan (Chomsky, On the Bombings. They had the effrontery to observe that 9-11 was historic in that the preponderant majority of international terrorism during the last four centuries has been inflicted by (core) European and North American states on each other and on the Third World. September 11 marked, Chomsky noted in an October talk at MIT, "a change in the direction in which the guns were pointed."

The left-liberal charge of moral relativist justification is based on a practically imbecilic conflation of explanation with rationalization and approval. Does an historian embrace Adolph Hitler's crimes when he or she writes about the historical circumstances that contributed to the rise of Nazism? No more than a criminologist justifies crime by analyzing the social, economic, and/or other circumstances that tend to increase the occurrence of, say, burglary, rape, or murder.

Radicals talked about the historical and social context that had likely given rise to Al Quaida and its terrible deeds not to excuse those deeds but rather to understand them and prevent new violence. They noted American crimes, past and present, not to excuse those of 9-11 but rather because those crimes are part of the context for the atrocities of September. They also sought to remind citizens that US policy makers held no moral basis to launch a military response that would certainly widen the circle of human suffering, killing many innocent Afghans (as in fact occurred), and likely incite new attacks on Americans. They wanted to tell their fellow Americans why most of the rest of the world, not without sympathy for the victims, saw 9-11 "from a very different perspective" (Chomsky) - something we should try to understand if we wish to respond in a way that contributes to healing rather than more violence. Prevention, not rationalization, was and remains the motive behind the writings of the radical "left commentators."

Confusing bin-Laden, Al Quaida, and the Taliban with the Virtuous Struggle of the Poor and the Weak Against Capitalist Imperialism?

The following early (October 2nd) exchange between Chomsky and a questioner who communicated through an MSNBC chatrooom shows rather clearly that he had no naïve, romantic, or "Marxist" ideas about the virtuous proletarian or anti-imperialist character of 9-11's likely perpetrators, the Taliban, or other extremist Muslim organizations:

Chip Berlet: I agree with you that aggressive militarism is not the answer to this mess, but the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's networks seem to me to be totalitarian and apocalyptic clerical fascist movements. Isn't this a moment the left needs to just say it is against terrorism, and that groups like the Taliban and OsB's networks are not liberation stuggles but reactionary or fascistic movements that we oppose?

Chomsky: As far as I'm aware, that's what the left has been saying for 20 years. I know I have ever since these groups were organized by the CIA, Pakistani and Egyptian intelligence and other U.S. allies. …The groups that the CIA organized were drawn from extremist radical Islamic groups and they have been pursuing their own agenda. They did what the CIA wanted them to, but they have been pursuing their own agenda. There is no doubt that from the start they were murderous terrorist organizations. I don't know if the word fascist is exactly correct, they don't have that kind of ideology. But they're extremely dangerous and have been for 20 years. ..That 's been the position, as far as I'm aware, of any serious person on the left as far back as I can remember.

Consider also Chomsky's response, within ten days of the attacks, to a radio journalist who wondered if bin-Laden and Al Quaida were motivated by bitterness towards US-sponsored globalization and American world cultural hegemony (Chomsky, 9-11 [NY: Seven Stories Press, 2001], pp. 31-32)

As for the bin-Laden network, they have as little concern for globalization and cultural hegemony as they do for the poor and oppressed people of the Middle East who they have been severely harming for years…Bin Laden himself has probably never even heard of "globalization." Those who have interviewed him in length, like Robert Fisk, report that he knows virtually nothing of the world and doesn't care to.

It was common on the left, in fact, to note that bin-Laden was a member of the same social class as George W. Bush who, like Bush, couldn't care less about the poor and who owed much of his terrorist capability precisely to American empire. Even among the Arab masses that have provided "at least sympathy" for attacks on the US, Chomsky noted, much of the most significant support came not from the poor but from Middle Eastern bankers, lawyers, and professionals - hardly the natural enemies of capitalism championed by "rag-tag Marxism."

It is true that the left rejected the mainstream US claim, repeated by the liberal-left, that Islamic hatred of American "freedom," prosperity, and democracy was the perpetrators' motive. It is also true that the left accompanied its post-9-11 writings and speeches with some rather harsh commentary on the ways that American empire and poverty generate hatred of the United States within the Middle East, provided fertile soil for anti-American terrorism. To say this is, not however, to say that the September 11 attacks were specifically motivated by a desire to strike a blow at American imperialism.

In fact, the left actually suggested a very different explanation seen in the following readily available statement from the ZNet site:

Why [did the terrorists] commit a grotesquely provocative act against a power so large, so armed, and so dangerous as the United States? Perhaps provoking the United States was precisely the intent. By provoking a massive military assault on one or more Islamic nations, the perpetrators may hope to set off a cycle of terror and counter-terror, precipitating a holy between the Islamic world and the west, a war that they can lead and that they may hope will result in the overthrow of all insufficiently Islamic regimes and the unraveling of the United States, just as the Afghan war contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union. Needless to say, this scenario is insane on every count one can assess. (Albert and Shalom, "Talking Points").

On September 22nd, Chomsky argued that "Bin Laden's prime target is Saudi Arabia and other corrupt and repressive regimes of the region, none of which are [by bin Laden's estimate] truly 'Islamic.'"

Chomsky spoke and wrote quite clearly against the notion of terrorism as the "weapon of the weak." In fact he argued that terrorism is "primarily a weapon of the strong, overwhelmingly…held to be a weapon of the weak because the strong also control the doctrinal systems."

Thanks largely to 9-11, things are difficult enough for those who sincerely believe in social justice in the United States (a category in which I would include most liberal-leftists) without the progressive community engaging in internecine warfare precipitated by medieval lunatics like bin Laden. In the interest of restoring some unity on the divided left and considering the real record of commentary on the origins and nature of 9-11, left-liberals owe their readers the elementary decency of consulting what the left actually said and wrote about the causes and meaning of terrible crimes past and present.


(Paul Street is a social policy researcher and frequent contributor to Z Magazine in Chicago. He can be reached at pstreet@cul-chicago.org)

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