Joe Conason got it wrong

I have never equated doubts about the war with treason. The only "fifth column" in America is that subset of the left that hates this country and loves its enemies.

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When conservative talk-show hosts criticize the Democrats’ foot-dragging on the war, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle complains they are promoting hate and endangering his life. When conservatives like myself deplore the sympathies shown by many “antiwar” activists to America’s enemies — a sympathy documented by Michelle Goldberg in Salon’s own pages — Joe Conason accuses me of attempting to incite patriotic mobs against all critics of the war. This is the way postmodern defenders of political dialogue attempt to shut down discussion.

Here is what Conason wrote: “In many quarters on the right, doubt about war equals hatred of America or worse. This sort of hysteria now pervades the propaganda operations of David Horowitz [whose] Front Page magazine features ‘The Fifth Column,’ where political adversaries are smeared with treason. Like many right-wingers, he insists that anyone who doesn’t enthusiastically support an invasion of Iraq must despise America and love Saddam. Anyone, that is, except for the antiwar skeptics on the right — who somehow escape being branded as traitors.”

These are all — how shall I put it delicately? — lies. I have never equated doubt about the war with hatred of America. I recently reposted a Boston Globe article by Todd Gitlin, a man with doubts about the war, and changed the title to “A Patriotic View From the Left.” The point I was making to my conservative readership was that Gitlin’s view was patriotic because it was critical of the “hate America” crowd, even though Gitlin remains a leftist critic of Bush. My documenting America’s fifth column is not a plot to suppress leftist critics, let alone all those who do not line up behind Bush. I do not equate political dissent with treason. Would I have spent years writing for Salon, and political capital defending its editors, if I considered them traitors? These charges are both insulting and absurd, and Conason knows it, and that is what makes his performance even more distasteful than it normally would have been.

Underneath my conservative white robe, Conason suggests I’m a  communist! “While Horowitz and company focus on easy targets like Noam Chomsky and Ramsey Clark, their deeper aim is to depict anyone who doesn’t line up behind Bush as soft on terror. Aside from scamming a few quick bucks — ‘Help David Expose the Leftist Plot to Control America’s Young Minds!’ — that is in fact their only purpose. (Despite its capitalist form, this enterprise strongly resembles communist methods of enforcing the correct line. You can take Horowitz out of the CP, but you can’t take the CP out of Horowitz.)”

The insinuation — the vulgar Marxist insinuation — that my conservative politics is a plot to make money is typical of Conason (indeed, as was the subject of his first attack on me, inspired by my first Salon column). Does anyone wonder why conservatives regard socialism as envy gussied up as a political cause? Although my parents were communists, after adolescence I never was, in either practice or theory. I was always a new-leftist critic of communism. My first book, “Student” — published in 1962 — was dedicated to Supreme Court justice and civil libertarian Hugo Black and explicitly criticized American communists for their rigid party line and anti-democratic philosophy (and was attacked by the Communist Party’s People’s World for that very reason).

Far from suggesting anything close to the idea that “doubt about war equals hatred of America or worse,” I have posted antiwar articles on FrontPage by my own columnist, John Zmirak. If Conason wants to maintain I have “smeared [my] adversaries with treason,” he should produce the quotes. Who is he talking about — Jane Fonda? John Walker Lindh? Or Noam Chomsky, who like Fonda traveled to hostile terrain (in this case Pakistan in the middle of the Taliban war) to accuse the United States of crimes against humanity.

Visitors to my site and readers of my Salon articles know that I have defended specific individuals who are Dissent socialists, Nation leftists and Salon editors. At HorowitzWatch, a site created by my critics, I have explicitly dissociated myself from the view that those who criticize the war are ipso facto fifth columnists or traitors. “Criticizing American policy is fine,” I wrote in my most recent post, “and almost no particular criticism can be labeled Fifth Column. It’s a matter of the profile of the critic, and the context of his/her criticism. I agree that it’s problematic and one needs to be careful in these matters when applying charged labels. But we are also in a war and it is clear that there is a large constituency in this country that believes America can do no good and that its enemies have ‘social justice’ on their side.” Are these sentiments controversial?

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As it happens, Conason is also 100 percent wrong about my having no enemies to the right. I personally commissioned Myles Kantor to write an article titled “Introduction to the Anti-American Right” and have run articles slamming the antiwar positions of Pat Buchanan’s American Conservative. I have also crossed swords with the right-wing editor of Antiwar.com, Justin Raimondo (whose search engine turns up 240 attacks on me, personally).

Conason’s column is an attempt to create an atmosphere in which the left cannot discuss what is now its most serious problem, namely, the presence of terrorist sympathizers in its own ranks. To do so would be McCarthyism, right-wing chauvinism, witch-hunting. Yet the problem created by the solidarity of many leftists with America’s enemies is not a new one for progressives. During the Cold War and before the emergence of the new left, progressives lent their support almost across the board (the Dissent camp and the Trotskyists were exceptions) to the Soviet adversary and later to Cuban and Chinese communists and other divisions of the gulag state.

Alienation from one’s own country and fifth-column support for its enemies is a much bigger problem for the contemporary left than it was for the left during the Cold War. Already the national peace demonstrations are in the hands of pro-Saddam, pro-Milosevic, even pro-ayatollah fanatics (as not only Michelle Goldberg, but the Nation’s David Corn have scrupulously pointed out). This has already so discredited the left generally that it has probably undone most of the gains the left made as a result of the Soviet collapse and the successful, albeit fanciful, alibi it employed to escape the connection — “Well, that wasn’t real socialism.”

The left’s problem in the war on terror is that America has been attacked, that American citizens have been slaughtered in their places of work and — if the D.C. snipers were (as I believe) a domestic al-Qaida — in their neighborhoods. Moreover, the left’s fifth-column wing has embraced not only anti-Americanism, but anti-Semitic, anti-female, religious fanaticism — thus forfeiting every last shred of the left’s “progressive” aura.

Sympathy for an enemy 10,000 miles away in Vietnam was one thing. Sympathy for the architects of 9/11 is another. The perils that the patriotic left faces from being connected to an anti-American, terrorist-sympathizing fifth column are vastly increased by the prospect of more 9/11-grade atrocities waiting in the wings. If you think sympathies for the communist devil created problems for radicals during the Cold War, wait until the casualty toll inside America begins to mount. That is why the left needs to feel free to have this discussion, which attitudes like Conason’s seek to embargo.

Contrary to Conason’s claims, it is my view that tactical disagreements over taking on Saddam Hussein at this moment in time don’t even qualify in the categories we are discussing. It is perfectly legitimate for skeptics to worry about the risks and/or distractions of the war against Iraq, even though it is also my belief that the sooner we do go to war with Saddam the better. In this hawkish perspective, I happen to be in complete agreement with Al Gore’s running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman.

Conason’s article does an immense disservice to the left. By distorting the arguments of critics like myself he stigmatizes in advance anyone who seeks to raise the problem. By equating critics of the anti-American left with McCarthyites, Conason obscures the problem itself. I may disagree fervently with a David Corn or a Todd Gitlin, or with Salon’s editor David Talbot, on a host of issues, but I am truly gladdened and encouraged that critics from the left are forthrightly condemning the ugly progressives who side with the enemy.

David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.

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