Little Sympathy to Squander: the American Left & 9/11

. (Tenth in a series)

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The antipathy to the U.S. voiced in the Guardian, on Question Time, from Baudrillard and Zizek – not merely despite 9/11, but in political sympathy with it, if not advocacy of it – found voice in the U.S. too. No small amount of it emanated from The Nation, perhaps the hallmark publication of the American beyond-liberal left. One of the more publicized commentaries was by Katha Pollitt on October 8, 2001. Pollitt reported on her refusal to let her daughter hang an American flag from their window as a sign of American solidarity in the days following the attack. The account was frequently misrepresented in reports, which omitted Pollitt’s willingness to let her daughter fly the flag from her own bedroom window since that was hers. It simply would not fly from the living room window. Pollitt explained her adamancy to her daughter by asserting, “The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war.” Her daughter averred, “[T]he flag means standing together and honoring the dead and saying no to terrorism.” Pollitt argued in the article, “In a way we’re both right,” and appeared, at first, by this conciliatory statement, to have been instructed by her daughter, until she revealed that this was near agreement only by default: “The Stars and Stripes is the only available symbol right now.”

So Pollitt never agreed that the American flag means anything other than “jingoism, vengeance, and war,” and seems, for a poet, oddly limited in her understanding of the nature and status of symbols. They are, as literary theorists like to say, “overdetermined.” They may mean many things, at a minimum whatever they may objectively refer to, and whatever other concept might be signified, which further signification is what makes them, to begin with, symbols, not to mention symbols worth discussing, and this other thing is open to some interpretation – for all but Pollitt. In this case, too, we have the additional element that the signifier belongs to that class of objects known as flags, a class that has its own symbolic cargo to deliver. The American flag, like almost any national flag, first signifies the ideals and formative mythos of the culture adopting it. That any national ideal has inevitably faced degrading confrontations in reality with the limitations of human beings to live up to it has been true for every nation. Exceptions are those flags, such as the Nazi or Confederate flags, that represented debased ideas in their origin. Certainly, history adds to the symbolic weight of any flag, and a penumbra of symbolic meanings, varyingly public and private, ensue. But Pollitt’s attempt to deny the American flag any other associations but her own scornful ones – including the original and, for many, the sustaining ideal – is as intellectually incompetent and morally dishonest, in the reverse, as attempts by recalcitrant or revivalist Southern boobs to argue that the Stars and Bars did not, in part, originally, and thus unavoidably, stand for white supremacy and slavery. For the flag of the Confederacy, the weight of its historically degraded signification is too great for it to be persuasively used to mean anything else. Claim that theU.S.flag stands for “jingoism and vengeance and war” and through the weight of a similar degradation, one denies that flag, too, any other sustainable meaning.

The problem for Pollitt, as for far too many on the left, is that any thought about the nature of patriotism ended when they learned – and thus were able to reduce all thinking on the subject to – Samuel Johnson’s justly famous dictum that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” It seems not to occur to them that Johnson’s observation is more an insight into the nature of scoundrels than it is a condemnation of patriotism (that the vile often pretend to virtue is reason to oppose the former, not cause to forsake the latter), or that it is less than the last word on the subject of group affinity, a subject that Pollitt seems to understand only more narrowly in her feminism. The right, thinking human nature immutable, diminishes our potential by resisting any ideal aspiration beyond the dream of God and the hunkering down with a socially-contracted group of like-minded families for self-preservation and the protection of their stash. The left, to our fairly universal sorrow, is forever denying human nature.

Elsewhere in the pages of The Nation, the debate between Christopher Hitchens and Noam Chomsky was an early revelation of the left’s division over 9/11. Hitchens, neither soft nor softheaded, saw 9/11, saw its perpetrators, saw their grievances and their goal, and decided we are not the enemy. His position has been vociferously clear ever since. Chomsky, far beyond any such conclusion, began his reaction to 9/11, the very next day in Counterpunch, as follows:

The September 11 attacks were major atrocities. In terms of number of victims they do not reach the level of many others, for example, Clinton’s bombing of the Sudan with no credible pretext, destroying half its pharmaceutical supplies and probably killing tens of thousands of people (no one knows, because the US blocked an inquiry at the UN and no one cares to pursue it).

The coldness of the response is a personal trait. After the pro forma “atrocities,” the script flipping to the U.S. as quickly as the second sentence was an ideological imperative. The unsubstantiated accusation disingenuously delivered with the rhetorical escape-hatch of “probably,” and the further world-wide and phantasmagoric net of accusation of “no one knows”-because-of-no-inquiry, are both calling card distractions while your good judgment is pickpocketed. Watch for that last because we’ll encounter it again. Hitchens responded in The Nation, then responded again, then Chomsky retorted, then Hitchens, then Chomsky one last time. That Chomskyan penchant for rhetorical disingenuousness was on full display in the exchange. Chomsky parried with Hitchens right and left through such slyly facetious rhetorical gestures as “Hitchens cannot mean what he writes” and he “must be unaware,” all toward the end of suggesting Hitchens’, wouldn’t you know it, “racist contempt.” When Hitchens called Chomsky on the charge, Chomsky preposterously claimed, “I explicitly and unambiguously said the opposite,” i.e. he did, after all, say that “Hitchens cannot mean what he writes….” This is disingenuousness of a very high order. The air becomes thin at such altitude. This went on until Chomsky dismissively ran from the debate.

But there would be more from him soon in a talk at MIT, and The Nation would continue its foolish grappling with the sympathies it could not gather to squander.


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