Politics and Shame

In the concluding paragraph of The Open Mind IV: Riposte, I wrote,

To comment generally, the record of the Left’s response to 9/11 and of supporting the Bush administration in its response to that attack – a record I have researched and inscribed– is embarrassing and often shameful. Many conservatives today speak and act no less shamefully in their failure to adequately support their President in his genuine efforts to protect and defend us all. They hysterically demonize Obama just as elements of the Left did Bush, and with no lesser conviction of his perfidy than is felt by some conservatives about Obama.

Ever keeping me on my toes, Copithorne offered, in part, this comment:

I don’t understand what you are referencing in the last paragraph about the shamefullness of the record of the Left’s response to 9/11 and supporting the Bush administration. I 411DBMC6AEL._SS500_remember the left vigorously supporting George Bush after 9/11. He had his 90% approval rating and he got his blank checks for Afghanistan and even Iraq. Is that the shameful part — tantamount to the shame of the conservative reflexive opposition to Obama?

Let me, then, both clarify and amplify. I was, in a single brushstroke, conflating eight years of the left’s relation to Bush with a mere one of the right in its relation to President Obama. That obscured some necessary distinctions. Let’s first give a moment’s attention to first years, and for Bush I’ll foreshorten to pre-9/11. Unlike Obama, who won a clear popular and electoral victory across multiple demographics, Bush, we all know, lost the popular vote and took office under the most controversial circumstances of any new President ever. Obama has reversed his campaign commitments on a few matters – mostly to the unhappiness of the left of his own party, not conservatives – but overwhelmingly he is pursuing policies on which he ran and his commitment to which the electorate had reason to well know when it chose him.

When Bush took office, though his assumption of the Presidency was procedurally, constitutionally legitimate, a very large part of the electorate, perhaps that full majority, considered his presidency to be, politically, illegitimate. Consider, for a moment, the hysterical, often unhinged, sometimes racist opposition that exists from the right to Obama in his very first year, the honeymoon ended at the altar: now imagine that, rather than his convincing electoral victory, he had assumed office having lost the popular vote, and only through a clear politically partisan vote of the Supreme Court, in which the liberal justices had, in reaching their majority determination, actually, very specifically, betrayed a defining judicial philosophy of liberalism in order to deliver the presidency to Obama. Given the level of vitriol as matters actually stand, with some on the right actively challenging Obama’s legitimacy, patriotism, and his very41fMVVnNzCL._SS500_ Americanism – and many more, like the moderate Muslims whom those very people chastise for not publicly rejecting the extremists, failing to strongly condemn this behavior – were circumstances such as I propose imagining them, we might well have active insurgent militias popping out of the woodlands.

Despite these circumstances, Bush’s 2001 tax cut, for instance, received the vote of five Democratic senators and twenty-eight Democrats in the House. In 1981, a much more comparable situation – another clear electoral victory – the Reagan tax cut received the support of thirty-seven Democratic senators and forty-eight Democrats in the House.

Compare those situations to the past year and the well-known commitment of the Republican Party to oppose Obama at every turn and give him not a single vote. Wrote Andrew Sullivan for The Sunday Times of England, this commitment reflects

a partisanship that seeks to impugn the core motives of the president, implying that he is, in fact, something alien and destructive to America, and must be opposed in everything he does, whatever it is, because his success would mean the end of America itself. It is not a declaration of opposition; it’s a declaration of war.

Whatever anger and contempt the left felt for George W. Bush in his first year, it does not measure up to the adversarial position assumed now by the right to Obama and that teeters at every moment on the unpatriotic and even subversive.

Post 9/11, matters changed, and became more complex. In almost all respects, the reaction to Bush from the left became more, not less, severe. Yes, there was an immediate rallying of popular support for Bush among the general, even liberal population – of a kind it is difficult to imagine for Obama from the right. (It is manifestly clear from the experience of the past year – Cheney, Limbaugh, Beck, blah, blah – and post Christmas bombing attack, that the reaction of the right to any future successful attack will be recrimination and charges that Obama was derelict in the performance of his responsibilities.)

But here we need to acknowledge distinctions, between an amorphous emotional support and solidarity with a leader at a time of crisis, and support for his actual policies; distinctions too between segments of the general populace and the public figures who represent them culturally and ideologically. We have to see the left, as we must the right, along a long sliding scale of leftness, so to speak. I have to be clear, too, that I am not just speaking of the American left, though there is plenty of shame to be found there alone.

Julia and I were in Europe on 9/11, in Prague, and we remained in Europe for several more weeks. We knew what was transpiring in the U.S. through television, the Web, and email correspondence. I also had, then, the opportunity of a European perspective. A truism quickly sprang up around 9/11 that the American people were unified in its aftermath, and that the United States had the sympathetic solidarity of all the world, squandered only in the progress toward war in Iraq. There is a very extensive record that offers a different story. I can touch here only quickly on some highlights.


Within hours of the attack, I myself received, among other critical communications, an email from an acquaintance who referred to the event as “chickens coming home to roost.” That metaphor became rampant on the left in subsequent days and weeks. By October 14, there were already anti-war demonstrations (against pending action in Afghanistan), and Marc Cooper of The Nation took his side of the quickly developing diving line on the left when he wrote in The Los Angeles Times, in “Liberals Stuck in Scold Mold” of a D.C protest:

Virtually nothing was said about what America should do in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks–other than to flagellate itself for a sordid list of foreign policy sins and transgressions….

Some conservative critics have lambasted this left for being subversive, even treasonous. I prefer to characterize it as traumatized and dysfunctional….

Hence, that odious whiff of “chickens coming home to roost” that has permeated much of the left’s reaction to Sept. 11.

By this point Christopher Hitchens was completing a debate with Noam Chomsky in the pages of The Nation that preceded Hitchens’ leaving the publication over its response to 9/11. In the October 8 issue, Katha Pollit unselfconsciously reported on her refusal to let her daughter hang an American flag from their Manhattan window as a sign of American solidarity in the days following the attack. Pollit explained, “The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war.” The letters section of The Nation during this period was a tortured expression of readers’ impulse to recognize a crime against their own people and their ideological inability to view the U.S. as either wronged or justified in taking military action. Indeed, on October 18, in a talk at MIT, Chomsky asserted that the U.S., in its preparations for action in Afghanistan, was already, in that country, perpetrating a “silent genocide.”

In Europe, only forty-eight hours after the attacks, on the BBC’s Question Time, a largely anti-American audience spewed hateful accusations against the U.S. and its policies at former U.S. Ambassador to Britain Philip Lader. Greg Dyke, the BBC’s director general, later apologized to Lader for the display. On September 18, Charlotte Raven in the Guardian unashamedly wrote “A Bully with a Bloody Nose Is Still a Bully” and declared that she was ashamed of Dyke for apologizing to Lader. On October 8 Madeleine Bunting published “Intolerant Liberalism” and expressed that

What is incredible is not just the belief that you can end terrorism by taking on the Taliban, but that doing so can be elevated into a grand moral purpose.

She saw the “the outline of a form of Western fundamentalism.”

Literary theoretical darling Slavoj Zizek, on September 14, 2001, only three days after 9/11, first posted to the internet “Welcome to the Desert of the Real,” later published in book form by Verso, and the title of which, addressed to the U.S., conveys its taunting, retributive message.

Not to be outdone, In France, on November 2, Le Monde printed Jean Baudrillard’s “The Spirit of Terrorism,” later published in book form by, of course, Verso, in which he said that it415MWY4JAZL._SS500_ is the U.S. that

through its unbearable power, engendered all that violence brewing around the world, and therefore this terrorist imagination which – unknowingly – inhabits us all….

That we have dreamed of this event, that everybody without exception has dreamt of it, because everybody must dream of the destruction of any power hegemonic to that degree, – this is unacceptable for Western moral conscience, but it is still a fact, and one which is justly measured by the pathetic violence of all those discourses which attempt to erase it.

The situation on the left became so embarrassing that by the spring of 2002 Dissent editor Michael Walzer felt compelled to write “Can There Be a Decent Left?” It was followed in the fall by Michael Kazin’s “A Patriotic Left.”

In fact, outside of congress itself, the public voices on the left were profoundly ambivalent about military action in response to 9/11, if not in outright opposition to it. The situation descended to even lower levels in anticipation of the Iraq invasion and its aftermath, with Democratic members of congress aligning themselves with Saddam Hussein on national television from Iraq, and American academics cheering pronouncements[1] that

The Iraqi resistance is fighting on the frontlines of the battle against Empire. And therefore that battle is our battle.

Of course, undeterminable numbers of mainstream liberals in the Democratic Party were represented by none of this, as presumably – one hopes – there are large numbers of Republicans who feel ashamed of Cheney, Limbaugh, Beck, blah, blah. But much of the representative intelligentsia of the left shamed itself after 9/11, as much of what passes for the same on the right is doing after the election of Barack Obama – what should stand as a less traumatic experience – and the right seems well-positioned and inclined to steal a tarnished mantle.


[1] Transcript of full speech by Arundhati Roy at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco, California on August 16th, 2004. I have heard a full audio tape of the speech that was frequently interrupted by cheers.

4 thoughts on “Politics and Shame

  1. With the exception of the unjusifiably marginalized Noam Chomsky, I’ve never heard of the people you mention representing “the left.” Certainly none of them have an iota of power within the Democratic Party.

    The one example you do offer of Congressmen McDermott and Bonior — they had the audacity to say that there was no evidence of Iraqi nuclear weapons and that George Bush was capable of misleading the American people in order to justify a war. These statements have been vindicated and no apologies should be needed for speaking the truth.

    Contrast this with the statements cited by Andrew Sullivan by John McCain and Dick Cheney.

    I am hard pressed to name any Republican politician or conservative political thinker who I see as engaged in thinking through a philosophy of public policy. [Maybe Ron Paul. Maybe Tom Campbell. Anyone else?] I see instead a tribal identification centered around the consolations of being a victim and having enemies. And the tribe with which they are identified is not America but some abstract fraction of it.

  2. Michael, that’s a fair observation, but it is because the real point of the post was to detail an observation I had made about the left and 9/11 in an earlier post. The behavior of the right to which I refer is all in the past year or so and should be fresh in the minds of those willing to recognize it. The two images I include with the post are specific examples of that to which I refer – and the inanity of Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism (I don’t imagine the right was too keen on declarations that Bush was a fascist), especially with the Hitler mustache image. I could cite Limbaugh’s declaration that he wants Obama to fail, the “birthers,” Beck on almost any show. It would be quite easy.

  3. You cite specific examples and quotes of the left, but make generalizations of the right. You post pictures but they’re not directly attributable to Limbaugh, Cheney, Beck etc. You did great leg work on the left, but didn’t do any on the right. I’m not saying there aren’t any people on the right to be embarassed by, but you haven’t done a thorough job of citing them. Just some honest feedback…

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