The Blinders of the Left

Is it 1956 for the Left? Well, yes.

All over the world, the Left was thrown into confusion and crisis after Khrushchev's 1956 speech exposing (some of) Stalin's crimes. It wasn't only Communist Party members who were dazed by Khrushchev's revelations; progressives of all stripes - from trade unionists to Trotskyites - were forced, if they were honest and brave enough, to reassess long-cherished beliefs.

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September 11 th has thrust those of us who consider ourselves progressives - who believe in democracy, feminism, human rights and socialism - into a 1956-type crisis. By this I do not mean that the Islamic fundamentalists who declared war on ``the infidels'' (including so many of their own people) are Stalinists (though the two groups certainly share some characteristics). I do mean that we must, if we are honest and brave enough, reassess many of our long-cherished beliefs. Questioning authority must now start with our own.

Are we up to that task? I am not at all sure that we will do better than our forebears in the 1950s; years of self-imposed political correctness have resulted in muddled, strident and obtuse ways of approaching (or is it avoiding?) the world. I should say here that I consider this piece primarily a self-critique; but I know, too, that though the universe of ``progressives'' I am addressing is not infinite, it is larger than one.

The holy grail of much Leftist thinking over the past two or three decades has been cultural relativity. Terrified of being thought racist, imperialist, arrogant, elitist or ``too Western,'' we averted our eyes from (and sometimes even supported) barbarisms of all types. Along with this came an odd reverence for ``traditional cultures'' - strange for those who fancy themselves forward-looking rationalists - at least if those cultures flourish in the so-called Third World.

For example: a student of mine defended female genital mutilation in Africa on the grounds that it is ``traditional.'' True, I replied; and so was slavery in the American south. That's different!, she cried. Ah, but it's not. Indeed, if Marx was writing today, he'd be vilified for blasting the idiocy of rural life, for today every idiocy is interpreted - all evidence to the contrary - as a form of intelligence. Then there is the opiate of the people, which has somehow metamorphosed into a self-conscious, nay dialectical, cry for national liberation. Ah, but it's not.

Bitter irony: this attempt to purify ourselves of racism resulted in a racist worldview. What else can we call our willful ignorance of the agony of so many in the underdeveloped world: the torture chambers that litter virtually every Arab nation, the million ``martyrs'' in the lunatic Iran-Iraq war, the thousands of state executions in China, the grotesque subjugation of women? (The Taliban's strictures against women make the Nuremberg Laws look almost mild, though in spirit the two sets of decrees are one.) Our ``solidarity'' with the Third World has been anything but.

Yet another irony: our belief in human rights in some ways abetted this betrayal. I often hear it said these days that human rights are inalienable - as if rights, like genes or DNA, reside ``within'' us from birth. Convenient, this; for who needs to defend, much less create, something innate? Rights, however, are not natural: they are artificial human constructs, the result of deliberate thought, of history, of ethical and political work . We don't inherit rights: we make them. The moment we stop building institutions that embody them (and resort to basking in feelings that sentimentalize them), they cease to exist.

Hannah Arendt put it well (the year was 1951, but it could be today): ``No paradox of contemporary politics is filled with a more poignant irony than the discrepancy between the efforts of well-meaning idealists who stubbornly insist on regarding as `inalienable' those human rights, which are enjoyed only by citizens of the most prosperous and civilized countries, and the situation of the rightless themselves. . . . Equality . . . is not given us, but is the result of human organization insofar as it is guided by the principle of justice. We are not born equal; we become equal as members of a group on the strength of our decision to guarantee ourselves mutually equal rights.''

Starting in the 18 th century and continuing into the middle of the 20 th , the Left defined itself as the defender of knowledge, science, secularism, progress, skeptical thought and universal (not relative) freedoms. All this has been horribly turned on its head; in place of our forebears' robust values, we substituted timid, frightened rationalizations for all sorts of voodoo ideologies and practices.

September 11 th - by which I mean not just the World Trade Center massacre, but the skein of hateful, reactionary worldviews and organizations it revealed with unmistakable force - is a clarion call. There are times when things change, when history bends if not quite breaks. This is that time. Because it is, we must un-learn the wretched habit of thinking that truthfulness resides in the messenger rather than the message. If a neo-liberal or conservative has more to tell us than a Noam Chomsky, so be it.

All morality begins in realism: our ability to see the world as it is, rather than as we want it to be, must henceforth be (and should always have been) the starting point of Left-leaning politics. Are we honest and brave enough (which in this case also means scared enough) to shuck our romantic fantasies about the downtrodden, and our shameful rationalizations borne of guilt, bravado and indifference? Our lives - and certainly the kind of world, if any, that we bequeath to future generations - depend on this.