The Mullahs and the Postmodernists

In October I got an e-mail from a historian I know who teaches at a college in the Northeast. She was gloomy about the terrorist attacks and anxious about the war, but much of her distress stemmed from the reactions of some of the people around her. One of her colleagues had appeared at a teach-in and declared that Americans were the "terrorists," because of their policies in Iraq. Others described the U.S. military action as naked aggression against an innocent, oppressed, and poor population. On another campus nearby she saw a graffito that read, "After Timothy McVeigh did we bomb Michigan?" Such sentiments cast their proponents into an incongruous ideological alliance—not with mainstream campus liberals like my professor friend (she was mystified and appalled) but with radical Muslims on the other side of the world.

There is nothing new about objections from the American left to the exertion of U.S. power abroad. Nor is there necessarily anything wrong with them: on more than one occasion they have been prescient. Yet this time the far left's reaction was strikingly reactionary. If the left seemed as anti-American as it was anti-terrorist, that was because it was in fact anti-everything, offering no program for American self-defense in the face of a direct attack and no substitute for either Western materialism or Islamic fundamentalism. The left failed to be constructive; it managed only to be, excuse the expression, deconstructive. That was disappointing to those who believe, as I do, that a vital and intelligent left wing is an important ingredient of a healthily self-critical society; but it was also clarifying, because it demonstrated the extent to which radical egalitarianism has displaced all other values on the postmodern left.

Radical egalitarianism? How could that explain the bizarre convergence of postmodern Marxists with anti-modern mullahs, who are anything but egalitarian? An underappreciated book by the late Aaron Wildavsky offers an answer.

Wildavsky taught at the University of California at Berkeley for thirty years, until his death, in 1993. He was one of the great political scientists of his generation. I was lucky to know him, and not a day passes when I don't miss his wisdom. That wisdom, infused with an incandescent passion, shines from a collection of essays titled The Rise of Radical Egalitarianism (1991).

Wildavsky wrote at the time when "political correctness" had only just burst into full flower on university campuses, and he wondered what lay behind it. He concluded that its many impulses—the impulse to regard all whites as oppressors and all minority members as victims, the impulse to see America as incorrigibly racist and classist and unfair, the impulse to impose admissions and hiring quotas and then lie about them, the impulse to politicize all academic disciplines, the impulse to snuff out dissent—were all aspects of a single controlling imperative. "That common factor," he contended, "is egalitarianism—the belief in the moral virtue of diminishing differences among people of varying incomes, genders, races, sexual preferences, and (especially) power."

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Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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