How the left became irrelevant

Christopher Hitchens talks about his beef with the Nation, the "filthy menace" of Saddam Hussein, and how the left ceded its moral credibility by opposing the war against Islamic fascism.

Topics: Iraq, Middle East, Christopher Hitchens,

How the left became irrelevant

In the weeks leading up to the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, editors at America’s premier left-wing magazine, the Nation, asked their readers to submit letters describing how that day had changed their lives. Hundreds replied and more than 40 letters were published from a diverse group of people who came from different generations, different regions of the U.S., different countries.

Christopher Hitchens, author of the magazine’s “Minority Report” column, read the letters with dismay. Many of the writers offered only a glancing lament for the lives lost that day, or the acts of heroism that saved other lives; few criticized the intolerance and cruelty of al-Qaida and the Taliban. Instead, one letter writer after another attacked the United States. It was “fascist,” said one. The war on terrorism was “flawed and self-serving,” said another. A third seemed to find a grim silver lining: The attacks had weakened the “loony” system over which George Bush now presides.

In 20 years as the Nation’s in-house contrarian, Hitchens had seen the left in all its idiosyncrasy and excess. His frustration was evident in the 1990s during his relentless criticism of — some would say unhealthy obsession with — President Bill Clinton, a charismatic icon for many liberals. But the left’s reaction to Sept. 11 did what Clinton’s misdeeds and his supporters’ defense of them never could: It drove Hitchens away from the Nation. In an interview last week, Hitchens recalled that his reaction to the Sept. 11 letters was decisive: “Well, that’s goodbye. I don’t want to have anything to do with reinforcing that kind of public opinion.”

Earlier this month, he wrote a column that was in some ways an answer to those letters, and to all the reflexively antiwar readers of the Nation. It called Saddam Hussein “a filthy menace,” and reiterated Hitchens’ support for Iraqi and Kurdish opponents of Saddam’s regime. It doubted Bush’s competence to prosecute the Iraq liberation effort. And it questioned whether Western antiwar groups would ever be persuaded by the voluminous evidence that shows Saddam to be a ruthless, murderous tyrant. “I have come to realize that the magazine … is becoming the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden,” he wrote. Then, abruptly, he ended the column with the announcement that it would be his last.



History may see the column as a small but telling moment for the modern American left. Hitchens’ sentiments were no doubt heartfelt, but it is difficult to imagine that he is anything but delighted with the controversy he has provoked. An ex-Trotskyist, expat Brit living in Washington, a loquacious but unpredictable rebel in the pundit class, Hitchens today finds himself at a singular position: He is friend to neither left nor right, but reserves the right to eviscerate them equally and in due proportion with whatever blade is at hand.

Hitchens was in San Francisco last week promoting his latest book, “Why Orwell Matters” (Basic Books). And in a 90-minute interview on the storied terrace at Enrico’s in North Beach, he nursed a glass of red wine and chain-smoked Rothmans, pausing only to relish a small chocolate souffli with crhme anglais. In the interview — which appears below, condensed in deference to the limits of the reader’s time — Hitchens did not so much answer questions as use them as a springboard for long, impassioned ruminations and fulminations on Orwell, Iraq, terrorism and the state of the left in America.

During the discussion, he acknowledged the inherent “contradiction” at finding himself allied with Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and other Iraq hawks close to President Bush, although he said nothing to embrace them. But he reserved most of his animus for the left. Many will argue it was unnecessary for Hitchens to leave the left, that the left had already left him thanks to his unrelenting attacks on Clinton and his support for impeachment. During impeachment hearings, he provided Senate investigators with an affidavit swearing that White House aide Sidney Blumenthal (formerly a close friend) told him Monica Lewinsky was a “stalker,” contradicting Blumenthal’s sworn testimony. In July 1999, many Hitchens fans were aghast when the Nation columnist teamed up with right-wing Rep. Bob Barr to headline an anti-Clinton Free Republic rally.

Since leaving the Nation, Hitchens says he’s felt “emancipated,” though the relief does not seem to have dimmed his antipathy for the politics espoused by Noam Chomsky, Ramsey Clark and the legions now carrying placards urging “No War on Iraq.” Why, he asks, did they not organize demonstrations against Saddam when he gassed his people, against the Taliban when they imposed harsh religious rule on Afghanistan, or against the al-Qaida attacks at the World Trade Center or elsewhere around the world?

“The term ‘the American left’ is as near to being meaningless or nonsensical as any term could really be in politics,” he says. “It isn’t really a force in politics anymore. And it would do well to ask itself why that is.”

Though it is a risk to summarize Hitchens’ carefully nuanced opinions, it is fair to say that he sees in the left’s reaction to Sept. 11 a failure to understand a profound change in world relations — a failure that makes the left irrelevant. The old political conflicts — and the old paradigm of opposition — are largely fading, and they’ve been replaced by a global conflict of theocratic states or movements against secular states. A conflict between God and reason, perhaps, with Hitchens very much allied with the latter. And that is a natural position for a leftist, he says, but the left has become so mesmerized by multiculturalism that it will not criticize even those cultures that oppose freedom.

“I love it when Muslims go to war with each other, as I do when the Christians do,” he says, “because it shows there’s no such thing as the Christian world and the Islamic world. That’s all crap.”

For Hitchens, clearly, life without a grudge would be no life at all — and he accumulates enemies and nurtures his fights as an oenophile collects fine wines. He won notoriety for a 1997 book that savaged Mother Teresa as a fraud. He is among those pushing to have former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger tried as a war criminal. And in the interview last week, he had pointed criticism for figures arrayed from left to right: Not just Chomsky, Kissinger, Clinton and Ramsey Clark, but Pat Buchanan, the late Ayatollah Khomeini, George Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Jacques Chirac, Kofi Annan, Vladimir Putin, Alexander Cockburn, Karl Rove, Jerry Falwell and even former President Jimmy Carter, the recent Nobel Peace Prize winner.

And these days, more than any other, Saddam Hussein.

How do you think Orwell is applicable to our times? Or, as I think the Washington Post phrased it in the past couple of days: What would Orwell be saying if he were alive today?

Well, I’ve no claim to be his ventriloquist in any way, or rather, to be able to ventriloquize him, but I’m sure no one would think I was an opportunist or just trying to sell my book if I pointed out that in the course of the last week, we saw the Iraqi people forced to humiliate themselves by a supposed 100 percent turnout and a supposed 100 percent vote and forced to degrade themselves by a big brother figure who might’ve modeled his regime on Orwell. And the same could be said of the other news that troubled our sleep last week, which is the news from North Korea, which — I’ve been to both of these countries, by the way, so I’m nearly up to speed with the axis of evil — and however much you want to avoid the clichi, there’s no way of spending even a day in a North Korea without thinking about Orwell. It’s as if they took their playbook from him — a completely hermetic state, endless adulation of the leader, literally hate meetings at workplaces about foreign powers and foreigners. The abolition of the private life. The abolition of the sexual life. So what would he be if he were still alive? He’d be a fairly sardonic 99-year-old. I think he might say: “Well look, you, it was easy to see the totalitarian system is a threat not to its own people alone, but to others. And that method of thinking, that method of rule is deadly and has to be opposed.” Then there are things about the language. The great lesson Orwell taught me was the connection between the struggle over language and the struggle for freedom — for free thinking — and that you have to realize that so many traps lurk in the language so that a term like “collateral damage” I think would obviously be easy meat for him as a way of describing dead civilians. I’m impressed that when people hear phrases like that, they think of Orwell. But I think he would also object to people who say: “No war on or with Iraq.” That’s using language for propaganda also, in a very base and I think a very crude and obvious way.

Does it surprise you that that would happen on the left? Would it have surprised Orwell?

It certainly wouldn’t have surprised him because his essay “Politics and the English Language” and his other reflections on this certainly do address themselves to power and the way that power distorts. And in particular most of his favorite examples are from what the French used to call the langue du bois, the wooden tongue, which I’m afraid to say we know under its more farcical pseudo-compassionate form of political correctness. It used to be better known as a language of thuggery used by the Communist left. Actually, a bit of both of these is involved in the witless slogan “no war with Iraq,” or “no war on Iraq.”

If one were to look at your writing, say, since Sept. 11, there are threads of Orwell in it, aren’t there? Whether or not they’re cited?

Well if someone wanted to say that, I wouldn’t feel I had to repudiate it. Because I can’t believe Orwell would’ve been neutral [in the debate] between theocratic aggression and civil society. The idea that something like Afghanistan is the ideal society — I know what I think about that. If it involves smashing planes full of people into buildings full of people, I’m against that too. How tough is that? More surprising I think are the people who would evade that question, or try to change the subject. But I think Orwell was a help in guessing the motive of that kind of masochism, that kind of self-hatred.

In what way?

He was quite clever at analyzing the way that people who repudiate patriotism will transfer that allegiance to other people. They’ll be patriotic about others, or they’ll make excuses about others they wouldn’t make for themselves. It’s a sort of psychological displacement, if you will. There was and there still is a sickening amount of that on what you could call the American left and, of course, never forget, on the American right. After the Sept. 11 attack, the first people to say the USA deserved this, and people who probably believed it in the most sadistic manner, were [Jerry] Falwell and [Pat] Robertson. “Of course what’d you expect, in a hedonistic, multicultural, sexually open country — naturally God will punish that.”

Where does it come from on the left? What’s the source?

I’d have to say — let’s call it honorable. There are people who cannot forget, as neither do I, the lesson of the years of the Indochina War. Which was, first, that the state is capable of being a murderer. A mass murderer, and a conspirator and a liar. For some people that’s definitive. They can’t get over it. So the idea that the United States could use force with moral justification is to them totally alien. They can’t — they can’t go there. They won’t. But that is more a proof of their inflexibility than their attachment to principle. It’s an empty position. It’s a nihilistic position. If they said, “Yes, if bin Laden’s the only revolutionary, he may not be perfect, but we’re on his side,” well, I could sympathize. No — I won’t say sympathize, but I could see it, I could respect it. But they don’t do that. They look for bogus equivalencies that actually lead to a cop-out. “Well, he did this bad thing, but we’ve done this bad thing.” That leaves you exactly nowhere. And surely it should at least condemn both. In fact it appears to excuse both.

And Orwell was clever about this. I mean, there were a lot of people, a very large number in fact, in 1940, for example, not just in England but in Europe and America, who would say, “Well, this Nazi business in Poland is pretty rough, obviously, but look at how the British behave in India. Why should we pick a side?” He sort of knew by the same instinct that I hope your readers have why that stinks as a means of arguing. I could explain why it stinks, but if I had to explain why to someone who didn’t get it right away, I probably would never succeed.

Because it’s obvious on its face?

I would distrust at once someone who didn’t see there was a fallacy there. And those who didn’t I think would not be open to persuasion.

What is the fallacy?

The fallacy is one of moral equivalence. The motive for it, or the ruse of it, is — I prefer to call it masochistic. It’s a self-hatred. It’s a refusal to believe that you would ever be justified yourself in having the arrogance to define and defend yourself against or to destroy an enemy. That would surely make you no better than them. But this is disabling.

It seems to me that the left has a reflexive pacificism –

Well, I wish it was pacifism.

– an unwillingness to fight wars.

If you’re a Quaker, you say: “It’s not that I’m afraid to die — I’m afraid to kill. I don’t think anything would justify it.” That’s fine. But in practice, it isn’t that. The people who tend to raise antiwar slogans will do so generally when it’s American or British interests involved. Ramsey Clark didn’t organize a protest against Saddam Hussein’s attack on Iran, or Kuwait. He’s not antiwar to that extent. And nobody complained about the failure of the West — nobody complained in an organized street-protest way — about the failure of the West to rescue Rwanda. And nobody complained about Milosevic’s invasion of Bosnia — well, that’s not true, a lot of people did — but their juices only kicked in when there was intervention to remove him. Voilè! You see the bad faith of this all the way through. It culminates in the most fatuous slogan yet devised, which is: “Stop the war before it starts.” Which is a protest against removing either al-Qaida from Afghanistan or the Taliban from Afghanistan or both. Well, at this point it has to be said I think that the left has lost every moral and political element that made it a formidable force as an antiwar movement in the 1960s.

I wonder if you can trace for me your disillusionment with the left.

My tradition from the extreme left days is different from that of most mainstream leftists, I think, in that I was a Trotskyist. The group I was a member of, International Socialists, was a dissident splinter of the Trotskyist movement — you were always fighting a war on about five fronts. But it was worth doing. It taught me how to argue, streetfighting, polemic and so forth. With the Clinton years, I realized that the left had moved literally to the right, because it was willing to excuse things that the United States did that it shouldn’t do if it was done by someone claiming to be a liberal Democrat. Horrifying things, like the bombing of Sudan on the international front, and horrifying things on the home front like the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act [of 1996], which, if either of these things were done by either Bush or Ashcroft, everyone would know what to say. When they were really being done and they were both worse things.

Clinton didn’t consult the U.N. about bombing Sudan. He didn’t consult Congress. He didn’t consult his Cabinet. He didn’t consult the CIA or the National Security Council. He overruled the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He got a free pass. And every lawyer who wants to throw someone in jail quickly with a minimum of trial knows to charge them under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Against which there’s no defense. And then there was Bosnia. If you are ever going to be confronted with a moral issue in your lifetime, one where there isn’t much wiggle room, it would be: Here’s an attempt to destroy, physically to destroy, a European minority, the third attempt of the 20th century. The first being the Armenian Christians, the second being the Jews, the third being the Muslims of the former Yugoslavia, or Bosnia Herzegovina. If you can’t be against that, when it’s taking place in front of your own eyes, what the hell can you say you are against?

All the Chomskyans and that lot — I call them Chomskyans for short now — said, “No, the problem with that was American imperialism daring to intervene in the Balkans.” As to the destruction of the Muslims, they had nothing much to say. They made weird predictions, like, “It’ll lead to a quagmire, it’ll lead to mass civilian casualties, it’ll lead to a wider war with Russia” — and so on, all of which was false. Then comes bin Ladenism. Suddenly the people who didn’t care about the murder of the Muslims [in Bosnia] say, “You musn’t offend Islam.” Bad faith. Catch them doing it twice, bad faith. It’s a pity there isn’t a term for this pathology. I’m certainly at the point where I think I can tell it when I see it, or smell it or taste it. And it’s summarized most recently in: “No war with Iraq.” In other words, let’s discuss Mesopotamia as if human rights didn’t matter. Well, I’m not willing to accept that invitation. So that’s how gradually one was diverging.

The culmination, it seems, was your decision to quit the Nation.

I got this feeling like a dog being washed all the time in left-wing company and then, just recently, it struck me that the excuses I’d given to myself — well, the Nation is a broad church or a big tent, and it’s all a friendly debate — were ceasing to be true. My quarrel isn’t with the editors. It’s with the readers. The magazine published a special Sept. 11 commemorative issue where they solicited letters from readers, “Tell us what Sept. 11 means to you.” I think they printed three pages of these. The revelation of what readers thought and how they thought was so depressing to me. Most of those letters in an ordinary week would not have been chosen for publication because they just weren’t up to the standard. They were very weak and badly written. Instead of which there were three pages of them, all of which said: “Here’s what Sept. 11 means to me — I’ve discovered I live in a fascist state.” I said, “Well, that’s goodbye.” I don’t want to have anything to do with reinforcing that kind of public opinion. When I can’t persuade myself any longer that I’m just one among the columnists, I think I can’t recommend to anyone that they read the magazine.

Where were you on Sept. 11? How did that day affect you?

I was in Seattle — or, actually, I was on the other side of Washington state, near the border of Idaho, giving a lesson on Kissinger. Scoop Jackson’s old college, Whitman. I knew that the next morning the lawsuit against Henry Kissinger would be filed in Washington, D.C., by the Chilean victims, murder victims, or rather relatives of the murder victims. I signed a few books, had a few drinks, shook a few hands, went to bed feeling I’d done a fairly good day’s work. I got woken up very early by my wife, told to turn on the TV. The plane flew into the Pentagon just opposite of where my daughter goes to school. I was at a very liberal college. And lots of people said things like: “Chickens coming home to roost.” I realized very early in the day that I didn’t believe a bit of that. But you know, I’m a mammal like everyone else. I went through disgust and rage — not fear.

And then, by the end of the day I realized there was something I hadn’t quite identified, it was another emotion waiting to dispose itself — it was exhilaration. I thought, that’s OK, that’s a confrontation between everything I like and everything I don’t like. You got an attack on civil society which indiscriminately kills people of every possible cultural denomination within the society. Upon examination this assault turns out to come from our client states, from the Saudi Arabian oligarchy to the Pakistani secret police, they’re the ones that incubated them. It puts the working class in New York in the saddle. It puts them where they ought to be as the defenders of the country, of the requisite values. It completely exposes the national security state as being pointed the wrong way, and being top-heavy and corrupt. And it creates an international feeling that there has to be a stand made against the worst kind of tyranny that there ever could be, which is religious, the one that the socialist movement came into being to oppose, the religious worldview, it’s what we exist to oppose, so people can actually emancipate themselves. You couldn’t really have wanted a better and more dynamic and radical confrontation. And the American left decides: “Let’s sit this one out.” That’s historical condemnation. To be neutral or indifferent about that, it’s just giving up. You just want a quiet life.

But was that because –

It’s the left turning into a very, very boring, banal, insular form of affectless conservatism and isolationism.

Why do you favor an invasion of Iraq?

I don’t favor an invasion of Iraq. But I favor a confrontation with Saddam Hussein, and I’ve been an ally and a friend, a good enough friend, I hope, to the Kurdish and Iraqi opposition for many years. And I and they have been for regime change for a long time. When all Bushes were against it, and Carter too, the Nobel Peace Prize-winner who incited and paid and encouraged Saddam Hussein to attack Iran, without, as far as I remember, a vote in the General Assembly about it, or Congress. So I’ve been involved with Iraq for more than 25 years, and Kurdistan. And I’ve had an unchanging view of it. I hope it can be done without an invasion.

Do you think it can be?

I think it can be, yes. I think the regime is close to imploding, as was demonstrated by the bizarre events of Sunday with the supposed amnesty [for Iraqi prisoners] that turned into somewhat like an uprising. The regime is already dead. It’s necrotic. Any shove from any direction would collapse it. An Iraqi officer now has to be asking himself every day when he goes to bed and wakes up, “Do I want to be the last person to die for Saddam Hussein?” Obviously that thought is implanted from outside, by the certainty that something will happen. If it’s true that there will be chaos in a post-Saddam Iraq — that was going to be true in any case. The question is, can one have a hand in it and can you do something for the people you hope would win? The answer is yes to both.

But Karl Rove has as much as said that Bush can use this to his advantage in November.

It was a very grave mistake of his, morally as well as aesthetically and strategically, to say, because it invites people to refute it, and I hope with success. I hope that no candidate who runs that way is rewarded. I think there is an equivalent mistake or a symmetrical mistake in saying, “Well, it’s being done for domestic reasons.” Which is an unbelievably, insufferably insular comment. Because Bush is certainly gambling his presidency on this, and has to know — because I know the people who are advising him, or some of them, know — that the gamble might not work out. He could be facing a calamitous outcome, something that no prudent politician would ever embark on.

And you think he’s aware of that potential for calamity?

He has to be.

Well, I think people wonder —

Most of the mainstream press and media spend most of their time emphasizing these dangers. They’re quite right to do it. But they are wrong in thinking these dangers don’t exist independently, so to speak, objectively. The problem of post-Saddam Iraq is a grave one, no matter how the post-Saddam stage is reached.

A question common among some leftists on this subject, just as it’s common among some generals and retired generals, is whether you can devote yourself to taking out Saddam without compromising your attention to the war on terrorism and al-Qaida.

In both cases, the question is thrust on you. Take the third case: How can you deal with North Korea without distracting attention? It was obviously a very unwelcome piece of news. But it’s not one that we can say, “Well, why don’t we concentrate on the other things as if this hadn’t happened?” The question of a post-Saddam Iraq is a very urgent one. We don’t have the option of saying, let’s pretend it’s not so and get after bin Laden. And by the way, the damage done to the bin Laden network I think has been very considerable. I think bin Laden is dead. We know the Taliban is gone and can’t come back.

Although al-Qaida’s been pretty active in the past couple of weeks, don’t you think?

This is the kind of thing — I lived in London and I worked in Belfast during the hot period of the war in Ireland. You were used to a bomb in a restaurant every week or so. It was a regular thing. Any fool can do it. You can blow up a restaurant in America every week — it wouldn’t make the slightest difference. It will come to that anyway. If it’s a war, there will certainly be regular shooting from the other side. But al-Qaida doesn’t have a host country anymore, and its leader is I think dead, and a lot of its militants are dead too, and it will become a lot easier to identify and kill them as time goes by. That has to be done in any case. So it would be like saying, ‘If North Korea invaded South Korea, we shouldn’t do anything about it because we have to concentrate on al-Qaida.’

But why Iraq now? Why can’t it wait a year? Why can’t it wait even two years? I mean, the time is arbitrary –

Anyone who wants to give Saddam Hussein more time is inviting him to get to the stage where he could say, well, I’ve reoccupied Kuwait, and if you want to push me out, be aware that I can let off a nuclear weapon in Saudi Arabia’s oil fields. I wouldn’t want to bet my own house, let alone anyone else’s, on that.

Do you find much opposition to these positions, particularly regarding Iraq? And especially on the left?

The main enemies of my position — the chief enemy is not Tom Daschle, who everyone knew would collapse and fall into line, and who had anyway got up to the same point of saying, “Let’s hit Iraq now,” when it was Clinton asking for it. The opposition of him and Robert Byrd is trivial, sham, something for the New York Times to write about. Everybody knew they would fall into line in the end. They would make a few noises, but they’d already for another president made the same commitments. They just wanted to give it to Bush. Trivial. And nobody gives a shit outside a small constituency what Chomsky thinks anymore, or Ramsey Clark. The main enemies of this regime-change strategy are Bush senior, [retired Gen. Brent] Scowcroft, [former Secretary of State Lawrence] Eagleburger, to some extent Kissinger — status quo forces, who like the Middle East the way it is, basically, clientele of Saudi Arabia — and the isolationist right, Pat Buchanan. And their language of prudence and caution and so on has a lot of echoes in the State Department and some in the CIA and Pentagon. The people who were so useful to us in defending us against al-Qaida. So it’s an argument with the conservatives. And this, more than any foreign policy argument has ever been, in fact, it’s an argument with the imperial conservatives, the Tories, and that’s simply obscured to a lot of people I think by the apparent objection of pacifists and liberals which doesn’t make any difference.

Although it’s —

And then are those who claim to be pacifists — they at least have a conscience about the Palestinians, a very important question — but who I think are being deceived. And then there are those who say, “Well, safety first. Prudence.” But it’s not clear to me their policy is the more secure one. As for the Palestinians, well, I’ve been banging on about the Palestinians for three decades, when a lot of the left thought it was too awkward a question to bring up. And I wouldn’t take any of that back, either. But if you say you can’t do anything about Iraq until the Palestine question is settled, you’re saying that the oldest dispute in the Middle East must be settled before you can do anything about Saddam Hussein, which is giving him a lot of room and time and notice and giving him the incentive to sabotage, which he has the partial power to do, any such settlement from occurring. So it may very well be that those who care for the Palestinians should think of it the other way around. At least it’s as good as the other argument, which has been given a fair try and has not worked. It’s resulted in the Arafat faction and the rejectionists always knowing they’ve got someone else to turn to in Baghdad, for money and for weapons. Without that, they might have to do what they keep saying they won’t do, which is make a deal. That’s another gamble, I’ll admit. It could go wrong. But I think the existing gamble is set in time and schedule to go wrong — it can’t work.

So you see an invasion of Iraq as potentially having positive repercussions in the Israeli-Palestine –

I would prefer to call it an intervention against Saddam Hussein. I think it has many possible unintended consequences that are good. They’re the reason why the conservatives oppose it. One, it destroys the Saudi Arabian monopoly on oil. That’s why Kissinger spoke up against it. It upsets the Turkish oligarchy because, in theory at any rate and possibly in practice, it enlarges the nucleus or the embryo we already have of a Kurdish autonomous state. It takes at least a bit of bet on the possibility that the Iraqi people could produce a better regime than they have. It’s destabilizing, yeah, but that’s what I like about it.

The New York Daily News, in a recent column by Stanley Crouch, suggested that you’ve left the left. The National Review in the last few days said that Christopher Hitchens is no man of the right, but that “We will be in the same trench for years to come.” Do you believe these assessments of your political evolution? Have you left the left?

Both are making the same mistake in a different way. Stanley used, in his youth, to be a keen revolutionary black nationalist and very much isn’t anymore. And so I think he welcomes company from defectors of any kind. And he’s repudiated his past, which I haven’t and don’t. And the same would be true of the National Review. I mean, I didn’t read that, nor have I read what’s in today’s New York Post [National Review Online, actually], where I’m told William F. Buckley Jr. has a very long attack on me and my Kissinger film and I believe also the book. I haven’t read it but I know it’s apparently a full-out attack. So we’re not going to be in the same trenches, are we?

Let me put it in a different way: On the one hand your position on Iraq seems to be a position adopted by many people who are close to Bush, and as a measure that is integral to Israel’s security, which is an unusual position for you to be in, historically. You’ve been an outspoken critic of Israel. Second, it puts you in an alliance — not with Brent Scowcroft and not the various other generals, but with John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle and that cadre close to Bush. Isn’t that an unusual position –

It says to me, look, there is no position now on these matters that doesn’t involve the handling of contradiction. All people’s positions bring them into alignments they would never have believed they would have. In other words, shall we say, Noam Chomsky and Patrick Buchanan. Or Alexander Cockburn and Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. By the way, I’m very glad to find that those are the ways the planets have aligned for me. I’m not just a critic of Israel, actually. I’m an anti-Zionist. I’m one of those people of Jewish descent who believes that Zionism would be a mistake even if there were no Palestinians, which is a great lie of Zionism, that there is no Palestinian population. The bet made by the Wolfowitz-Perle group is that an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians would be more easily done if the Middle East were cleansed of authoritarian extremist regimes than if it were not. Well, we’ve given the other proposition a fairly fair test, and I think that it’s been a failure.

Last question –

I should say that I think that there should’ve been a Palestinian state 25 years ago and it’s a matter of principle that the Palestinians should have their own self-government, whether that helps with Iraq or not. I think it’s a matter of principle and should be approached in that way. But since no U.S. government was going to do that, and since Bush is the only president to have used the words “Palestinian” and “state” next to each other, I don’t see any reason yet to think his position is worse. And the resort by the Palestinians — some of the leadership and well as some of the rank-and-file — to suicide bombing, I think, had to be presented to them, without any ambivalence, as something that would be suicidal for them.

Is there a left out there that you are still a part of?

No. I don’t actually think there’s a left in America really at all, now. The term “the American left” is as near to being meaningless or nonsensical as any term could really be in politics. It has some memories it can be proud of. It has some veterans who I’m proud to know. But it isn’t really a force in politics anymore. And it would do well to ask itself why that is. Whether or not it revives, I think, is very problematic.

Why –

I hope it would be clear to anyone who reads this that I don’t feel I wasted all my time on the left. That I still think as an internationalist and as a socialist in what you might call the intellectual, the ethical way — I still do. And I accept also the risks of revolutionary strategy even if it’s only a revolution from above. So that, to that extent, I feel much more as I used to in the ’60s, having meetings with the Iraqi opposition and the Kurdish rebels, than I would marching under a banner saying “Leave Saddam Hussein alone.” Actually it’s for them to ask whether they think there’s a left or whether they are in fact just a creepy form of the status quo who’ve made all their own adjustments to power but are still preserving an outdated rhetoric.

Last question: Ten words or less, tell me what your politics are.

I feel emancipated by the lack of any party or ideological allegiance.

Emancipated and not lonely?

Well, loneliness was always — if you’ve ever been, as a I nearly was once, a full-time organizer for a group that is a minority within the Trotskyist movement, isolation has no terror. I have to be careful, in other words — this is more than 10 words — of not succumbing to the view that being on your own may mean you’re right. That of course can be the first sign of madness. [laughs]

Edward W. Lempinen is a senior news editor at Salon.

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