Most of my adult life I've been on what is called, in our degraded political language, "the left." Now, I don't know what I am.
I believe in protecting the environment from rapacious exploitation, and I believe in an economy that encourages people who work hard and play fair, but with safety nets and protection for the little guys against the unscrupulous corporate predators among the honest business people.
I own a home in an urban neighborhood of mixed ethnicity. Every time I see another farm or wooded copse chewed up for a housing development, I grit my teeth. I led editorial battles to save farmland and woods from suburban sprawl. A $50 million bond issue to save open space in one county passed, probably, in part, because of editorials I wrote about it.
I've spent hours and dollars working to keep religious fundamentalists from taking over local school boards (a much more important job than simply bashing on Jerry Falwell). I've advocated for minorities and sick Vietnam veterans. I sought to vote for statesmen who would offer a generous foreign policy that shared America's good fortune with the world. I was in favor of Enlightenment virtues and freedoms in opposition to fundamentalist strictures and darkness, peaceful solutions over violent ones.
A "liberal" is someone who believes that change can be good, especially when it is guided by a spirit of free inquiry and a firm sense of what is right and it aims to increase human freedom and give people more opportunities to guide 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" is someone who believes the Enlightenment values enshrined in the constitutions of the Western democracies are true human values, not merely cultural artifacts. The West has no gift from god, and our citizens are not better than those of other lands, but I love my country because it has 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.
I grew up thinking that, and I identified myself as a liberal.
What I saw as the opposition was ... well, everything opposite to this. It was many things: Hidebound religious orthodoxy, knee-jerk refusal to think and apply one's mind to political and social problems, insistence that any change only would make things worse. These attitudes often huddled under the label "conservative."
Like a lot of people raised in my generation, I was mistrustful of U.S. military power, and selfish nationalism. Like a lot of people, I recited the litany of "stupid American" stories and jokes. In those days, I regarded America as almost God-like in its invulnerability. Thus I naturally had a root-for-the-underdog identification with any people or group I felt as a victim of U.S. power. Like you'd slap a bad kid for kicking a dog. The slap won't hurt the child, but the kick could kill the dog.
Then I saw the reeking ruins in New York city. 3,000 dead -- people just like me, who probably told the same jokes and held the same views. Why dead? Because they were Americans. The edifice of the country shook, and it made me realize, this place is mortal, like any nation. Like the moment you realize that, someday, your parents are going to die, it changes you.
When I look at America, for all its flaws, against its enemies, and all their purposes, I know which I prefer, which side I give my whole support. And when I look at the way the rest of the world reacted to us -- telling us we deserved it, still more frightened of us than of anything else, a world where a hot-selling book in France right now is called "50 Good Reasons to Hate Americans" -- I saw the fruits of unrestrained America-bashing as clearly as I saw them in the ruins in New York when my son and I went up there a few weeks after the attacks.
Killing the Americans didn't start on 9/11. It is at least as old as the Palestinian hijacking of the '80s, when the Americans were routinely singled out on international flights and beaten to death. It's a result of resentment of American power, you say? Very well, the Germans in the 1930s started killing the Jews not because they felt the Jews were weak, but because they were terrified of the supposed power the Jews had in the world.
I'm one of those who believes America is at war, and ought to behave like it, since Sept. 11. And after much studying and soul-searching, I came to the conclusion that the world probably, and Iraqis definitely, would be better off if the U.S. used its military might for once to remove a corrupt fascist who had been occasionally useful to us. He was our mess, largely, so it was our job to clean him out.
It strikes me as a decision a principled man could possibly make. But it doesn't strike my liberal friends that way. I understand their vexation, but it seems they can see only venality or psychopathia in people like me. And having once stood on the other side from them, and seen them in that perspective, I can't imagine going back to their camp (not that they are inviting me back).
I spent much of the '80s and '90s in active, public disputation with "the right." When I thought of "them" I pictured zealous, pious, ignorant, self-assured demagogues of crusading ideologies, inflexible mean men clad in expensive suits and cheap ethics.
Yet, as a small-town newspaper editor, the people I dealt with on the "right," with three or four odious exceptions, were fine and decent. The head of the local anti-abortion group was a soft-spoken young widowed mother of two. A school-prayer advocate was a cheerfully avuncular man who always asked about my son and would as gladly sit in my office and chat about the things we agreed on -- such as the genius of George Washington -- as the ones we didn't. The ex-mayor, a hardcore law-and-order cop, used to regale me with stories of law enforcement in the old days. I welcomed visits and phone calls from them.
I still hate SUVs and corporate malfeasance, executives who jilt retirees out of their hard-earned savings and foul the waters. I still think police should be held to a high standard in exchange for the power we grant them. I'm still a friend of freedoms and Enlightenment values, and an ally of whoever embraces them, in whatever place or culture. I reject the notion of school prayer as a panacaea for society's ills. I think abortion is tragic, but a necessary evil. I applaud the idea of gay marriage, and would gladly leave it to the states to decide whether it should be so. I also think states should decide whether marijuana should be leagal to buy, sell, own, and smoke. I think the government has no business censoring what we see on TV or do in our bedrooms.
In other words, I still disagree with my old enemies. But on more and more issues, I've come down on the side opposite my former friends. And I find myself in political opposition to many people and organizations I once supported.
On the whole, my old adversaries never forgot that their opponents were human beings. And thus they never stopped being human themselves. I wish I could say the same of the humanists around me today.
Possibly, all this is no deep matter. The evolution of a radical young man to a conservative middle-aged one is among the oldest of 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. And like the aftermath of a divorce, I can't help re-examining my history on the left to look for incipient signs of a break-up.
"Gun control" is one such issue. I've never owned or fired a gun. I once held in my hand my great-uncle's .22 revolver from his days as a Pennsylvania Railroad conductor, but I'm not sure that gun would even fire. I've been to a shooting range once, to cover a police contest for a newspaper.
My grandfather on my father's side was an avid hunter, as were other men on that side in the late 1800s. I have photos and illustrations of them with rifles in hand. But that never got passed down to my dad, perhaps because his own father died before he had the chance. Probably it wouldn't have mattered. In our suburban existence, nobody talked about guns. It wasn't a gun culture.
So I came of age associating firearms with Christian enthusiasm, flag-waving patriotism, fondness for the military, and other irrational fixations of the right-wing loonies in this country.
I was of the "why would you need an AK-47 to hunt a deer" school of gun control. But back in the '80s I read the Village Voice, and back there among the naughty personal ads they ran Nat Hentoff's column. I read him regularly. And here was this Jewish intellectual from the city, with no more of gun culture in him than I had, teaching me to think of the Constitution, and especially the Bill of Rights, as a whole.
My commitment to freedom of speech was solid; anything this side of "shouting fire in a crowded theater," I endorsed. So, I set myself the task of devising an argument against the Second Amendment that wouldn't also involve, and constrict, the First.
I couldn't do it, of course. They are of a piece. Would you say that the framers of the Bill of Rights never imagined the destructive power of modern weaponry? Then neither did they imagine the reach and scope of the modern media -- visual as well as printed, and all the more powerful for its pretense of unbias. Was their commitment to an armed citizenry based on an antiquated military model of a minuteman national army? Then so was their commitment to a free press based on a political system where newspapers served as the principle organs of party communications, something that hasn't been true in America since 1880 or so.
You don't need an AK-47 to shoot a white-tail deer, but neither do you need to dunk a crucifix in a piss-pot to make art. Guns kill people -- when people use them for that purpose. So do words. Or were we never serious about that bit about the pen being mightier than the sword?
So I gave up, and learned to accept the idea that some people grow up with guns and they're not survivalist freaks and they're no real danger to me. The gun problem in America -- and it is real -- is largely associated with urban crime. But until you can invent one set of rules for the black inner city, and another for the deer-hunting backwoods counties, you'll not solve it. The ever-clever Ed Rendell discovered the difficulty of that as mayor of Philadelphia. No state illustrates the dilemma better than Pennsylvania.
Later I got to know people in the South, who had grown up in Atlanta suburbs that looked much like mine on the Main Line, but they had been taught to use and handle firearms, and they used them for pleasure. And I actually envied them their Sunday afternoons blasting plastic milk bottles in the back yard. It sounded like fun. As for whether it would ever be a useful skill, as opposed to a passtime, that question got answered when my Marietta, Ga., friend ended up working in post-war Iraq.
I've still never owned or fired a gun. Perhaps I never will. By now, for me, it would be an affectation or a dilletante experience. But I've made my peace with that strain of the American right.
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.
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.
Communism never attracted me, I'm glad to say. I skipped Marx and read Rousseau, Kropotkin, Godwin, Paine, Gandhi, Paul Goodman, that sort of thing. I decided I was an anarchist, 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.
In Europe, I also met Kurds. I met them in taverns and hostels in Nuremburg, because, for some reason, the small town of Fürth, 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 non-Christian tribal 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 a modern liberal approves are those that burn American flags.
Sunday, 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.
In bidding farewell to the left, I find myself in interesting company. Among them is author and columnist Ron Rosenbaum, who wrote in his farewell letter:
Goodbye to a culture of blindness that tolerates, as part of "peace marches," women wearing suicide-bomber belts as bikinis. (See the accompanying photo of the "peace" march in Madrid. "Peace" somehow doesn’t exclude blowing up Jewish children.)
Goodbye to the brilliant thinkers of the Left who believe it’s the very height of wit to make fun of George W. Bush’s intelligence—thereby establishing, of course, how very, very smart they are. Mr. Bush may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer (I think he’s more ill-informed and lazy than dumb). But they are guilty of a historical stupidity on a far greater scale, in their blind spot about Marxist genocides. It’s a failure of self-knowledge and intellectual responsibility that far outweighs Bush’s, because they’re supposed to be so very smart.
Goodbye to paralysis by moral equivalence: Remind me again, was it John Ashcroft or Fidel Castro who put H.I.V. sufferers in concentration camps?
Goodbye to the deluded and pathetic sophistry of postmodernists of the Left, who believe their unreadable, jargon-clotted theory-sophistry somehow helps liberate the wretched of the earth. If they really believe in serving the cause of liberation, why don’t they quit their evil-capitalist-subsidized jobs and go teach literacy in a Third World starved for the insights of Foucault?
Goodbye to people who have demonstrated that what terror means to them is the terror of ever having to admit they were wrong, the terror of allowing the hideous facts of history to impinge upon their insulated ideology.
Goodbye to all those who have evidently adopted as their own, a version of the simpering motto of the movie Love Story. Remember "Love means never having to say you’re sorry"?
Goodbye to all that.
Labels: left behind, liberal