Stranger in a Strange Land

The dismay of an honorable man of the left

October 6, the day immediately preceding the first U.S. counterstroke against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, found me on a panel at the New York Film Festival. The discussion, on the art of political cinema, had been arranged many months before. But as the chairman announced, the events of September 11 would now provide the atmospheric conditioning for our deliberations. I thus sat on a stage with Oliver Stone, who spoke with feeling about something he termed "the revolt of September 11," and with bell hooks, who informed a well-filled auditorium of the Lincoln Center that those who had experienced Spike Lee's movie about the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama, church in 1963 would understand that "state terrorism" was nothing new in America.

These were not off-the-cuff observations. I challenged Stone to reconsider his view of the immolation of the World Trade Center as a "revolt." He ignored me. Later he added that this rebellion would soon be joined by the anti-globalization forces of the Seattle protesters. When he was asked by a member of the audience to comment on the applause for the September 11 massacres in Arab streets and camps, he responded that the French Revolution, too, had been greeted by popular enthusiasm.

Although those who don't read The Nation, the New Statesman, and the London Review of Books, and who haven't come across Susan Sontag's disdainful geopolitical analysis in the pages of The New Yorker, may not be aware of it, these views are, sadly, not uncommon on the political left. Indeed, I would surmise that audience approval of Stone's and hooks's propositions was something near fifty-fifty. Clapping and hissing are feeble and fickle indicators, true. At different times, in combating both Stone and hooks, I got my own fair share of each. But let's say that three weeks after a mass murder had devastated the downtown district, and at a moment when the miasma from the site could still be felt and smelled, a ticket-buying audience of liberal New Yorkers awarded blame more or less evenhandedly between the members of al Qaeda and the directors of U.S. foreign policy. (And not just of foreign policy: Stone drew applause for his assertion that there was an intimate tie between the New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington attacks and the Florida ballot recount, which was, he asserted, "a complete vindication of the fact that capitalism has destroyed democracy.")

By this time I was entering my twenty-sixth day of active and engaged antagonism toward this sort of talk, or thought, and was impressed despite myself by the realization that I was the first person Stone and hooks and some audience members appeared to have met who did not agree with them. Or perhaps I should rephrase that: I was the first person on the political left they had met who did not echo or ratify their view. As it happens, I know enough about Marxism, for example, to state without overmuch reservation that capitalism, for all its contradictions, is superior to feudalism and serfdom, which is what bin Laden and the Taliban stand for. (Stone, when I put this to him after the event, retorted that his father had spent many years on Wall Street, and thus he knew the topic quite well.)

Having paged through the combined reactions of Sontag, Noam Chomsky, and many others, I am put very much in mind of something from the opening of Marx's The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. It's not the sentence about the historical relation between tragedy and farce. It's the observation that when people are learning a new language, they habitually translate it back into the one they already know. This work of self-reassurance and of hectic, hasty assimilation to the familiar is most marked in the case of Chomsky, whose prose now manifests that symptom first captured in, I recall, words by Dr. Charcot—"le beau calme de l'hysterique." For Chomsky, everything these days is a "truism"; for him it verges on the platitudinous to be obliged to state, once again for those who may have missed it, that the September 11 crime is a mere bagatelle when set beside the offenses of the Empire. From this it's not a very big step to the conclusion that we must change the subject, and change it at once, to Palestine or East Timor or Angola or Iraq. All radical polemic may now proceed as it did before the rude interruption. "Nothing new," as the spin doctors have taught us to say. There's a distinct similarity between this world view and that of the religious dogmatists who regard September 11 in the light of a divine judgment on a sinful society. But to know even what a newspaper reader knows about the Taliban and its zealous destruction of all culture and all science and all human emancipation, and to compare its most noteworthy if not its most awful atrocity to the fall of the Bastille ...

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" (September 18, 2001)
Americans today are finding new inspiration in Julia Ward Howe's anthem—originally published in The Atlantic in 1862 to rally Union troops.

I take a trawl through my e-mail and my mailbag. "Why sing the 'Battle Hymn of the Republic'? Don't they know John Brown was the first terrorist?" ... "What about the civilian casualties in Vietnam, Guatemala, Gaza [fill in as necessary] ...?" This goes on all day, and it goes on while I sleep, so that I open a new batch each morning. Everyone writes to me as if he or she were bravely making a point for the very first time it had ever been made. And so I ask myself, in the spirit of self-criticism that I am enjoining upon these reflexive correspondents, whether I have any responsibility for this dismal tide of dreary traffic, this mob of pseudo-refugees taking shelter in half-baked moral equivalence. Professor Chomsky's preferred comparative case study is Bill Clinton's rocketing of a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan in 1998—a piece of promiscuous violence that took an uncounted number of African lives as part of Clinton's effort to "look presidential" (and also one of many fainthearted earlier attempts to "target" Osama bin Laden). At the time, I wrote several columns denouncing the atrocity, and the racism and cynicism that lay behind it. I also denounced the vileness of the public enthusiasm for the raid, which I think was at least comparable to the gloating of the dispossessed and the stateless over September 11. Now I get all this thrown back at me by people who didn't read it on the first occasion and who appear to believe that only Chomsky has the civic courage to bring the raid up. (He didn't bring it up at the time.) Kipling is back in fashion these days, because of the North-West Frontier, so when I ask myself the question, I also allow myself this couplet from If, in which we are asked, "If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken, / Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools..."

It is perfectly true that most Americans were somewhat indifferent to the outside world as it was before September 11, and also highly ignorant of it—a point on which the self-blaming faction insists. While attention was elsewhere, a deadly and irreconcilable enemy was laying plans and training recruits. This enemy—unless we are to flatter him by crediting his own propaganda—cares no more for the wretched of the West Bank than did Saddam Hussein when he announced that the road to Palestine and Jerusalem led through Kuwait and Kurdistan. But a lethal and remorseless foe is a troubling thing in more than one way. Not only may he wish you harm; he may force you to think and to act. And these responsibilities—because thinking and acting are responsibilities—may be disconcerting. The ancient Greeks were so impressed and terrified by the Furies that they re-baptized them the Eumenides—"the Kindly Ones"—the better to adjust to them. Members of the left, along with the far larger number of squishy "progressives," have grossly failed to live up to their responsibility to think; rather, they are merely reacting, substituting tired slogans for thought. The majority of those "progressives" who take comfort from Stone and Chomsky are not committed, militant anti-imperialists or anti-capitalists. Nothing so muscular. They are of the sort who, discovering a viper in the bed of their child, would place the first call to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

I believe I can prove this by means of a brief rhetorical experiment. It runs as follows. Very well, I will stipulate that September 11 was revenge for past American crimes. Specifically, and with supporting detail, I will agree that it was revenge for the crime of past indifference to, and collusion with, the Taliban. May we now agree to cancel this crime by removing from the Taliban the power of enslavement that it exerts over Afghans, and which it hopes to extend? Dead silence from progressives. Couldn't we talk about the ozone layer instead? In other words, all the learned and conscientious objections, as well as all the silly or sinister ones, boil down to this: Nothing will make us fight against an evil if that fight forces us to go to the same corner as our own government. (The words "our own" should of course be appropriately ironized, with the necessary quotation marks.) To do so would be a betrayal of the Cherokees.

Some part of this is at least intelligible. My daughter goes to school just across the river from the Pentagon; her good-hearted teachers proposed an "Amity Walk" for children of all nations, to culminate at the statue of Mahatma Gandhi on Massachusetts Avenue. The event would demonstrate that children had no quarrel with anybody. It would not stress the fact that a death squad had just hit a target a few hundred yards away, and would have liked to crash another planeload of hostages anywhere in downtown Washington, and was thwarted in this only by civilians willing to use desperate force. But I had my own reasons, which were no less internationalist, for opposing anything so dismal, and for keeping my child away from anything so inane. I didn't like General Westmoreland or Colonel North or General Pinochet, and I have said more about this than some people. (I did not, like Oliver Stone, become rich or famous by romancing Camelot or by making an unwatchable three-hour movie showing Nixon's and Kissinger's human and vulnerable sides.) I detest General Sharon, and have done so for many years. My face is set against religious and racial demagogues. I believe I know an enemy when I see one. My chief concern when faced with such an antagonist is not that there will be "over-reaction" on the part of those who will fight the adversary—which seems to be the only thing about the recent attacks and the civilized world's response to them that makes the left anxious.

At his best, Noam Chomsky used to insist that there was a distinction to be drawn between state crimes and insurgent crimes, or between the violence of the emperor and the violence of the pirate. The Taliban-bin Laden alliance is a horrific and novel blend of the two. It employs the methods of the anarchist and the rebel in one declension, being surreptitious and covert and relying on the drama of the individual "martyr." But it also draws on the support of police and military and financial systems, and on the base indulgence of certain established and well-funded religious and theocratic leaderships. It throws acid in the faces of unveiled women. It destroys and burns museums and libraries. (Do we need to submit to our own guilt to "understand" this?) It is an elemental challenge, still terrifying even when one appreciates the appalling fact that its program of medieval stultification cannot actually be realized but will nevertheless be fought for. How contemptible it is, and how lowering to the spirit, that America's liberals should have cried so loudly before they had even been hurt, and that they should have been able to be so stoic only when ignoring the cries of others.