"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Fifteen years ago, Peter Collier and I assembled a group of disillusioned New Leftists for a conference in Washington we called “Second Thoughts.” These second thoughts had been provoked by many things, but most relevant was the wholesale slaughter of innocents in “liberated” Cambodia and Vietnam by political forces that had been supported by the left. It was not the first sprouting of such radical second thoughts. Generations of leftists before us had been repelled by the similar crimes of Stalin and Mao and Castro, and had shed their progressive worldviews for a sadder, wiser and often more conservative philosophy. Indeed, Irving Kristol, who was on the panel of “elders” we invited to our conference, observed that second thoughts had begun with the creation of the modern left during the French Revolution and had been repeated many times since. Our second thoughts, he said somewhat sardonically, were in fact a Yogi Berra moment of “dij` vu all over again.”
And now it is dij` vu once more. The events of Sept. 11 and their aftermath have induced second thoughts in a whole new generation of leftists who are in various stages of reassessment. These include such luminaries as Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens, who this fall joined with their opponents on the right to defend America against a radical Islamic enemy, one that they previously might have regarded as the historical agent of the Third World oppressed. Now the editor of Dissent, Michael Walzer, has come forward to articulately and provocatively pose this generation of second thoughts, and ask how far to push them. A philosopher, social critic and lifelong Democratic socialist, Walzer has pointedly titled his article “Can There Be a Decent Left?”
In so far as there is a “decent left,” which I’ve been known to question, Michael Walzer has exemplified it throughout his political career. I crossed political swords with Walzer nearly 40 years ago, when I was a young and combative Marxist in England. I do not remember the substance of our disagreements, and I no longer have copies of Views, the obscure left-wing magazine that printed them. But I am certain that he was the more civil of the two of us, and that he, then being to my right, was also more right on the issues.
I would also say that the faction of the left that Dissent represents is itself the decent faction of the left. During the ’60s, Dissent’s founder Irving Howe symbolized resistance within the left to the totalitarian elements who came to dominate it during that sad decade. Although in the 1980s its editors were seduced into a “critical” defense of the Nicaraguan regime, they have an otherwise honorable record of having opposed communism throughout the Cold War, even if they only grudgingly supported or, worse, were often excessively critical of America’s crucial efforts to contain the communist threat.
Not all Dissent writers share Walzer’s personal decency. One obvious manifestation of decency is to respect those you disagree with if they deserve it. Dissent editor Paul Berman once described me as a “demented lunatic” — as though only the redundancy would do justice to a political enemy no matter how ludicrous the overkill. Dissent’s other leading philosophical figure, Richard Rorty, has defined his left as a movement “against cruelty.” But his own writings have not been without crude demonizations and peremptory dismissals of his neo-conservative opponents (not to mention Republicans generally) as dolts and fascists, whose ideas a civilized progressive is obliged to dismiss. He has even celebrated the left’s political domination of the universities, something he well knows is the result of an ideological cleansing of conservatives that he would certainly deplore if the roles were reversed.
Still, Dissent has played an important role in trying to discourage the left from romanticizing America’s enemies, and Walzer’s fine piece continues that tradition. But where in the past, Dissent as well as “second thoughts” leftists tended to lament the left’s active support for brutal regimes, nightmarish states that it mistakenly took to be earthly utopias, Walzer’s doubts originate in his problems with the left’s passivity about defending America against nightmare threats against it. This is not wholly different from the past, but it is different enough to warrant our attention.
“Many left intellectuals live in America like internal aliens, refusing to identify with their fellow citizens, regarding any hint of patriot feeling as politically incorrect,” Walzer writes. “That’s why they had such difficulty responding emotionally to the attacks of Sept. 11 or joining in the expression of solidarity that followed.” In their first responses, he notes, leftists failed “to register the horror of the attack or to acknowledge the human pain it caused.” Instead, they felt “schadenfreude,” that German word meaning joy at another’s sorrows, a “barely concealed glee that the imperial state had finally gotten what it deserved.”
Even though some of these leftists regained their “moral balance” after the attacks (for many it was more likely a sense of political self-preservation), they still exhibited a myopic attitude when addressing the problem of what should be done. Their sense of being internal exiles in America was again at the root of the problem: “That’s why their participation in the policy debate after the attacks was so odd; their proposals (turn to the U.N., collect evidence against bin Laden, and so on) seem to have been developed with no concern for effectiveness and no sense of urgency. They talked and wrote as if they could not imagine themselves responsible for the lives of their fellow-citizens. That was someone else’s business; the business of the left was … what? To oppose the authorities, whatever they did.” Hence the left put its energies into defending the civil liberties of suspected terrorists.
Walzer is himself still unwilling to put it this bluntly, of course. This would mean finally stepping away from the left, which he is unready to do. So he applauds the exaggerated concern of the left for, say, the prisoners of Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, calling it “a spirited defense of civil liberties” and a “good result.” But this is a minor qualification in the face of the large and pressing question he has raised, about the way the left sees and feels itself to be an alien force in its own country. In fact, Walzer is having a classic set of second thoughts.
In my own passage out of the left, nearly 20 years ago, it occurred to me that my revolutionary comrades never addressed themselves to the obvious questions for social reformers: “What makes a society work?” Which is the preamble to “What will make this society work?” In all the socialist literature I had read, there was hardly a chapter devoted, for example, to the creation of wealth. Socialist theory was exclusively addressed to the conquest of power and the division of wealth that someone else had created. Was it any surprise that the socialist societies they created mostly broke world records in making their inhabitants poor?
Walzer puzzles at length over the failure of the left to understand the religious nature of the al-Qaida enemy: “Whenever writers on the left say that the root cause of terror is global inequality or human poverty, the assertion is in fact a denial that religious motives really count. Theology, on this view, is just the temporary, colloquial idiom in which the legitimate rage of oppressed men and women is expressed.” He notes that “a few brave leftists” like Christopher Hitchens have described the al-Qaida movement as a “clerical fascism.” (Actually this is a lingering political correctness in Walzer. Hitchens described al-Qaida as “Islamo-fascists,” quite different from those Catholic clerics who supported Franco in Spain.) But even he does not seem to grasp the religious roots of radicalism generally, and therefore fails to understand the affinity of American radicals for al-Qaida and its Palestinian kin.
The indecent left reacted badly to Sept.11, concludes Walzer, because ideologically it is still under the spell of the Marxist schema. These “ideologically primed leftists were likely to think that they already understood whatever needed to be understood. Any group that attacks the imperial power must be a representative of the oppressed, and its agenda must be the agenda of the left. It isn’t necessary to listen to its spokesmen. What else can they want except … the redistribution of resources across the globe, the withdrawal of American soldiers from wherever they are, the closing down of aid programs for repressive governments, the end of the blockade of Iraq, and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel?”
This is an excellent reading of the political left. But Walzer is still puzzled: “I don’t doubt that there is some overlap between this program and the dreams of al-Qaida leaders — though al-Qaida is not an egalitarian movement, and the idea that it supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is crazy. The overlap is circumstantial and convenient, nothing more. A holy war against infidels is not, even unintentionally, unconsciously, or ‘objectively,’ a left politics. But how many leftists can even imagine a holy war against infidels?”
This question reveals a gap in Walzer’s own perception of the left that has its roots in his own decency — and in the fact that, after all is said and done, he is a moralist and reformer, not a revolutionary. There is, in fact, a large literature examining the religious character of the modern revolutionary left written by authors as different as Nicholas Berdyaev, J.L. Talmon, Francois Furet, Leszek Kolakowski, Gerhart Niemeyer and Eric Voegelin. (I have, of course, written extensively about this myself in “Radical Son” and “The Politics of Bad Faith.”) If one looks, it is not hard to see how the left’s social melodrama neatly fits the traditional Judeo-Christian eschatologies, from which its key texts were derived (Marx, after all, came from a long line of rabbis). There is the Fall from an idyllic communal state, the travail through a vale of suffering and tears, and then a social redemption. There is a passion for moral purity and the purges and witch-hunts that then result. The redemption projected of course comes not through the agency of a divine Messiah but through the actions of a political vanguard and its power in the socialist state.
In the last 30 years, but particularly in the last dozen, it has been impossible for leftists to visualize the utopian redemption that once motivated their mislabeled “idealism.” The catastrophe of every socialist scheme of the 20th century has had a devastating effect on left-wing optimism and replaced it with a corrosive anti-capitalist nihilism that makes it impossible for most leftists to defend a country which, compared to its enemies, is a veritable heaven on earth. All that remains of the revolutionary project is the bitter hatred of the society its exponents inhabit, and their destructive will to bring it down. This answers Walzer’s question as to how so-called “progressives” could be either so unwilling or so slow to defend their own country, a tolerant, secular democracy, in the face of an evil force and its terrorist attacks.
Peter Collier and I drew attention to this nihilism more than a decade ago in “Destructive Generation,” the book we wrote about our second thoughts. We, too, pointed out the sense of alienation as a defining element of the “progressive” left. As editors of Ramparts magazine, we had produced a cover featuring a 7-year-old, the son of our art director Dugald Stermer, holding the flag of the Vietcong, America’s communist enemy in Vietnam. The cover line said, “Alienation is when your country is at war, and you want the other side to win.” Oddly enough, in “Destructive Generation,” we offered as an exemplary statement of this alienation a quote from Michael Walzer: “It is still true,” Walzer had written, “that only when I go to Washington to demonstrate do I feel at home there.” The statement made more than a decade ago measures the profundity of Walzer’s present second thoughts. And it takes courage to think them. Like Christopher Hitchens, who published a beautiful tableau of his own transition for Vanity Fair after 9/11, Michael Walzer has come home.
His second thoughts are not really different from the second thoughts of others before him despite his stubborn unwillingness to really let go of his attachment to the alienated left. As presently stated, they attack the nihilism of the left, but do not necessarily reject the left’s visionary goals. And in the end, Walzer does not actually answer the title question of his article — “Can There Be a Decent Left?” — with a “no.” But he comes very close. “I would once have said that we [the left] were well along: the American left has an honorable history, and we have certainly gotten some things right, above all, our opposition to domestic and global inequalities. But what the aftermath of Sept. 11 suggests is that we have not advanced very far and not always in the right direction. The left needs to begin again.”
Those of us whose second thoughts made us secede from the left have to discourage Walzer’s optimism. The left has been beginning again since the French Revolution, and ending in grief almost every generation. If it has to begin yet another time after all this tragedy, if it is dij` vu all over again, and again and again, I don’t understand why decent leftists like Walzer can’t give it up entirely and save the world another century of grief.
David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.More David Horowitz.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)