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Left, Right, Left…

Suppose officials in the Obama Administration are anxious to find ideas to guide America in a new direction. They might turn to Democracy and read Todd Gitlin. He certainly sounds like a man of the left. But what does he think liberals in office should do? Clearly they should not take notice of the warnings from Bernard-Henri Lévy and myself that the European left (and perhaps parts of the American left too) are going along with, or at least excusing, the far right. According to his response to my review of Lévy’s new book [“Left Is Right,” Issue #11], I assume “in black-or-white Republican fashion that those who reject a bomb-bomb foreign policy are turning cold shoulders to totalism’s victims.”

I do not, and nor does Lévy. Like much of the rest of what Gitlin has produced, this is overkill, from a writer more interested in attention-seeking than fact-checking. All I have argued, here and elsewhere, is that a left that no longer shows solidarity with the victims of totalitarianism–unless, of course, that totalitarianism can somehow be said to be the “fault” of the United States–is not a left worth having. Our Obama staffers, however, will be more interested in his views on how they should handle their inevitable confrontation with totalitarian regimes and movements. Gitlin’s answer is, I think, that they should do nothing.

I say, “I think,” because it is not at all clear what Gitlin believes. After denouncing Lévy and me in the wildest language, he mutters that we may have a point. After thundering his opposition to a “bomb-bomb” foreign policy, he implies he supported the bombing of the forces of Slobodan Milosevic.

Gitlin’s slipperiness, his fear of saying anything that might bring him harsh looks from a fellow sociologist or a hurtful write-up in The Nation, was encapsulated for me in this self-regarding question about the vital conflict of our time: “If my soul is stirred by Afghan women demanding their rights, but I worry about a NATO strategy that bombs a lot of inconvenient civilians, have I gone over to the enemy?”

Well, it depends, doesn’t it? We all worry about NATO strategy, but if Gitlin only mentions women’s rights in passing, and devotes the rest of his article to attacking writers who defend them, if he cannot even pluck up the courage to say whether he wants the struggle against the Taliban to continue, then I do not think that radical Islamists’ would regard him as their deadliest foe. He does not support but he does not oppose, either–the classic position of the dilettante down through the ages.

Gitlin ends on a self-pitying note, sighing that “when Cohen warns that the American Left will soon face the same dilemmas as the French, that American liberals after Bush run the risk of sliding down the Europeans’ morally squalid slope, he fails to grasp how marginal intellectual life is altogether on this side of the ocean.” If he is the best the American intellectual life can come up with, I can’t say I’m surprised. For the sake of America and the world, the Obama Administration should marginalize him, too.

Nick Cohen
London, United Kingdom

Todd Gitlin replies:

According to Nick Cohen, I fall short of his exacting fact-checking standards. But he himself thinks that I “imply” that I supported the bombing of Milosevic’s forces during the Bosnian genocide–when 0.45 seconds with Google would have demonstrated that I did support it before, during, and after. For the record, if it matters, I do agree–no great shakes–that “it is always wrong to stone women to death” and, more generally, to “abandon…solidarity with those victims of oppression whose suffering does not fit into the ‘anti-imperialist’ worldview.” A bit more Googling would disclose that Professor Chomsky’s epigones have frequently had it out for me for precisely that reason, though perhaps I have declared my solidarity in less Manichaean terms than Cohen prefers. The trouble is that bombast in the name of solidarity is not a policy.

Don’t Hate the State

Robert Atkinson deserves praise for pointing out that Keynesian economics is not a suitable leftist heir to neoclassical orthodoxy, no matter how popular countercyclical deficit spending might become during the present recession [“Innovation Economics,” Issue #11]. Further, he is correct that any compelling replacement for neoclassicism must speak to sources of wealth creation in the modern economy. But now more than ever, any new progressive economics must also adequately address the political context of economic activity, and here “innovation economics” falls short.

The great intellectual failure of neoclassical economics is not that is understates the role of innovation–which it does–but that it understands government only as an exogenous source of demand, resulting in an extreme under-emphasis of the manifold public processes that continually remake our economy and society. This, in turn, leads to foolish policymaking: financial deregulation, exacerbated wealth inequality, and the lack of a serious climate change policy.

The roots of this story go much deeper than our national income accounts. They are in the most compelling popular political philosophy of the Cold War, or in the writings of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman (Atkinson alludes to this at the beginning of his essay). It was during the Cold War that Americans learned to hate the state.

It is precisely this “lesson” of the Cold War which we must unlearn today. Regulation, taxes, and the government are not essentially evil, but rather are necessary social constructions that will be part of civilization for the foreseeable future. And with our increased faith in the state comes a renewed belief in the classical progressive approach that we have to guide us in place of rigid ideology: well-intentioned, hopeful pragmatism.

Chris KnightWashington, D.C.

Democracy Readers who would like to submit a letter to the editor can do so by emailing dajoi@democracyjournal.org.

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