Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Modern Left: Stuck in the 1970s

Writing for The Nation Jonathon Schell believes America is at mortal risk. He sees the nation sinking into the same crises that spawned Watergate.

Then as now, the presidency became "imperial." Then as now, a misconceived and misbegotten war led to presidential law-breaking at home. Then as now, a quixotic crusade for freedom abroad really menaced freedom at home. Then as now, the law-breaking President was re-elected to a second term. Then as now, the systemic rot went so deep that only a drastic cure could be effectual…Then it was the war in Vietnam; now it is the war in Iraq and the wider and more lasting "war on terror."

He lists a few more “then as now” comparisons, but you get the gist. What’s old is new again and the serpent eats his tail. At some point, the American left stopped looking forward and started reaching backwards, desperately wanting the present to conform to the past. Eagerly inflating the good deeds of yesteryear into grand, immutable truths of today.

Vietnam was a bad war so therefore all wars-of-choice are bad. Nixon abused civil rights in the name of security, therefore all efforts to increase security are an abuse of civil rights. Power was corrupt then, therefore power is always corrupt. Nixon was brought down by his misdeeds, therefore Bush will fall too.

Forget for a moment the validity or invalidity of the modern left’s criticisms and ask, wouldn’t it be far wiser to frame opposition within the realities of 2006 rather than the dusty remnants of 1974? The world has changed dramatically over the last 30 years, shouldn’t our points of reference have evolved as well?

The modern left is correct to criticize the president on torture, on warrantless wiretapping, on the overly broad interpretation of executive powers, on the Iraq War’s failings of execution, on the often unchecked deference shown big business, on the billowing deficit, on the divisive rhetoric.

The left has many well-placed critiques. But their frame of reference is all wrong. When you read someone like Schell, you get the sense that he believes there is no real “war on terror” that the threat is overblown, that we need not take any substantive or transformative measures to ensure the short and long-term security of our nation and Western democracy as a whole. This blind spot is most clearly revealed in Schell’s closing remarks:

After all, the cold war, which seemed at the time to be the seedbed of the Watergate crisis, ended sixteen years ago, in the greatest upheaval of the international system since the end of World War II. How is it, then, that the United States has returned to a systemic crisis so profoundly similar to the one in the early 1970s? By looking at external foes, are we looking in the wrong place for the origins of the illness? Is this transformation what a more "conservative" public now wants? Or is there instead something in the dominant institutions of American life that push the country in this direction?

To Schell, the modern struggle against radical Islam is a bogeyman, an illusion manufactured by our institutions. He sees us returning to the crises of the 1970s because he can’t escape the thinking of the 1970s. But the truth is, the struggles and threats of today are radically different than they were 30 years ago. Keeping this nation balanced and on course will take approaches different from those employed when Nixon reigned.

It is my sincere hope that the modern left soon leaves the paradigms of the 1970s and reinvents liberal ideology for the modern era. Many great critiques come from the left. But such criticisms will continue to have little use or effect until they are framed within the realities of today.


Blogger cakreiz said...

Is it any wonder? The mid-70s were pretty heady times for the Left- the War ending, Nixon resigned, the Class of '74 was elected, abortion rights were solidified in Roe. More importantly, it hasn't been smooth sailing since. Ironically, I saw a recent Newsweek interview of the 5 Oscar-nominated directors. The first question says it all:

“Q: Your movies this year tackled racism, terrorism, same-sex love, government intimidation and the ethics of journalism. It feels like we’re in the 1970s again."

Anyway, I agree with you entirely, Alan. Terrorism isn't a hoax, as suggested by some. Holding onto the 70s as a political template will simply guarantee future election losses.

2:57 PM  
Anonymous middleman said...

I have been telling friends that it feels like the 70s all over again. But it is an interesting point that the problems America is facing need forward-thinking solutions.

4:08 PM  
Anonymous DBL said...

Like Mr. Schell, I lived through the 70s, but unlike him, I grew up.

You have hit the nail on the head, of course. Schell, and his allies on the left, don't think that Islamic extremism, jihadism, is anything to worry about, beyond hiring a few extra policemen to arrest the bad guys (along with some lawyers to defend them) and maybe some more firemen and ambulance crews to clean up any mess. Strategic thinking about Islamicism and the challenges it presents in Europe, in the mid-East and in Asia, as well as here in America, is simply beyond Schell's ken.

The good news is that young people today look at Schell and his 1970s fixation as if he were writing about the 1870s. They can see that the world we live in today is vastly different than the last century's and requires fresh analysis, fresh ideas, and above all, an open mind. Schell fails on all accounts.

3:41 PM  
Blogger Robert Rouse said...

While I cannot deny that terrorism exists, it has existed in one form or another for several centuries. What we are actually afraid of today is terrorism from radical Islam. However, trying to fight terror in a central location such as Iraq is much like trying to stop ants by burning an anthill. The ants will simply build another base and more ants will be created. Radical Islam exists in far more places than Iraq or Afghanistan. No matter how many of these "ant hills" we try to burn off, there will always be more, and each act of the United States that looks like aggression toward the Islamic faith will only create more radicals. There is no central location for the terrorists. What Bush has accomplished is creating a "war" that cannot, in effect, ever be "won". There will be no surrender ceremony aboard the USS Missouri. Osama bin Laden will not hand over his sword at Appomatax.

As for looking at the similarities between what is going on now and what happened in the 1970s, wasn't it George Santayana who said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"?

7:36 AM  
Blogger cakreiz said...

There's a big difference between Schell's position that terrorism is essentially an illusion versus Robert's analysis that it is decentralized and difficult to combat. With the possible exception of Iran's looming nuclear capability, terrorism is largely unaffiliated and decentralized, as Robert suggests. I wouldn't argue otherwise. It makes this threat very difficult to deal with.

My beef is with Schell's belief that the WOT was artificially created to feed the military-industrial complex. Apart from being wrongheaded, it will die in its tracks politically.

10:37 AM  
Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

Robert, I think the question is, do you agree that we should be doing something to forcably confront radical Islam or do you think the threat is primarily the result of our own misdeeds and will go away if we just stop being such lying bastards?

It is very legitimate to question the usefullness and wisdom of the Iraq War. It is far less legitimate to think radical Islam and its terrorism are not real threats.

1:00 PM  
Blogger cakreiz said...

That is the question, Alan. As I've suggested to Robert, Europe's neutrality strategy hasn't been remarkably successful. In the final analysis, we're all infidels in the eyes of radical Islam.

1:34 PM  
Blogger Robert Rouse said...

I thought we were doing a fine job of forcibly confronting radical Islam in Afghanistan. I believe our actions in Iraq were poorly thought out. Our presence in Iraq has done more for the casue of radical Islam than anything else we had done before. Bush's sabre rattling seems to be a better recruitment tool for al Qaeda than if they were able to take out full page ads in the Islamabad Daily Gazette (if there were such a paper).

Imagine if during World War II, for every German soldier we killed, two more popped up out of hatred for America. This is the course we are currently on.

Of course radical Islam is a threat, the USS Cole and 9/11 made that abundantly clear. But we should have kept after Osama and used our resources where we knew there to be al Qaeda leadership.

Until we took Saddam Hussein out of the picture, Iraq was definetly not a hotbed of Islamic terrorists. We created the gap, and they filled it in. Now Iraq is probably more dangerous to the region because of the looming civil war between Shia and Shiite.

All we did by going into Iraq was add a highly flammable fuel to the burning embers of radical Islam.

12:00 PM  
Blogger cakreiz said...

I was never a fan of the neo-Wilsonian view that planting democratic seeds in Iraq would result in flourishing ME freedom. It always struck me as an overly optimistic, naive notion. I thought it was wise to narrowly defining our interests by focusing on Afghanistan and al Qaeda.

All of this begs the looming question of Iran. What is the proper US course, given Iran's potential nuclear threat to Israel and/or Europe? How broadly should we define our interests? (Note: it's much easier to post the Qs than give the answers!)

2:13 PM  
Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...


I think there are two main critiques of this war. The first is the very reasonable one that you voice: that it was not needed and has made the problem of Islamic radicalism even worse. That view, in fact, is a traditionally conservative view--one based on eschewing ideology in favor of weighing real world consequences. It's Kissinger-esque.

The far left view I was writing about here, is different. It posits that this whole threat is largely manufactured by American interests seeking to oppress the weak and rule the world. The people who buy into this also tend to be the people who opposed the invasion of Afghanistan. They're a small group but they have succeeded in making common cause with more mainstream left-leaning types. The result is that people like Schell make the left look misguided and weak when most of the left-of-center crowd (like yourself) are actually arguing for a smart and pragmatic approach.

I really think that until the mainstream left kicks out its Schells, the left as a whole is going to have a hard time developing a coherrent and workable plan for confronting the radical Isalmic threat.

3:42 PM  

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