Slouching from Bethlehem

Joan Didion's essay on 9/11 -- which criticizes Israel and complains that civil liberties are being curtailed -- shows an intellectual left in decline.

Published January 7, 2003 2:47PM (EST)

Reading Joan Didion's recent essay-cum-speech in the New York Review of Books is an enlightening exercise. It's enlightening not because it persuades. There is no argument in it, no prescription for American foreign policy now, no alternative proposed for countering the murderous terrorism that has already killed thousands of Americans. In this, Didion perfectly represents a certain type of decay in thinking on the intellectual left. Their argument about where we should go from here is essentially, "We shouldn't be here in the first place."

Still, you can glean a few hints from Didion's prose about what she actually proposes for our current predicament. Among them: allow Saddam Hussein to get nuclear, biological and chemical weapons; abandon Israel to its fate; withdraw from Afghanistan; have a national discussion about how America is the real source of the world's current problems. I don't want to put words into her mouth; but since she won't explicitly state what she thinks -- a style that seems far more appropriate when she's observing pop culture than foreign policy -- I don't have much of a choice.

But boy, does she have complaints. The main one is that those who actually do not blame the United States for the 9/11 massacre are somehow historically illiterate or incurious. She bemoans a culture of stupidity and jingoism that allegedly puts some topics off-limits:

"There was the frequent deployment of the phrase 'the Blame America Firsters,' or 'the Blame America First crowd,' the wearying enthusiasm for excoriating anyone who suggested that it could be useful to bring at least a minimal degree of historical reference to bear on the event ... Inquiry into the nature of the enemy we faced, in other words, was to be interpreted as sympathy for that enemy."

This is a curious way to describe the discussion after 9/11. She approvingly quotes a Berkeley professor (yes, there are self-parodic moments in her essay) to the effect that "On September 12, the shelves were emptied of books on Islam, on American foreign policy, on Iraq, on Afghanistan." But she's horrified when the result of that reading and thought turned out to be a consensus that the problem lay with Islam's closed universe of growing extremism, not the evil lurking in America. She doesn't seem to grasp that people who differ from her views about this might also have read history, theology, sociology, philosophy and so on. Does she think that Bernard Lewis or Fouad Ajami have not devoted years to inquiring into "the nature of the enemy we faced"? Does she think that my own post-9/11 essay, "This Is a Religious War," was devoid of any historical or philosophical analysis? Does she think that John Keegan and Victor Davis Hanson are uninterested in military and diplomatic history? The sheer intellectual snobbery of Didion blinds her to the real scholarship on the other side of the debate. Which makes life easier for her, but it doesn't help shed any light for the rest of us.

Perhaps this is a function of being in a liberal intellectual cocoon. When the only educated people you know hold identical views to yours, it's an easy step to assuming that all those other mysterious creatures out there who disagree with you are simply dumb anti-intellectual jingoists. The cocoon blinds Didion in other ways as well. Many times in the piece, she recounts going out into the country to talk to real people about 9/11. She doesn't seem to realize that the people Joan Didion might meet in bookstores -- the ones who have come explicitly to hear her speak, no less -- might not be completely representative of the country as a whole. Memo to Didion: Get out a little more.

The core of Didion's analysis is Israel. Again, she doesn't say what we should actually do about Israel. But Israel's existence is apparently the source of the entire mess. I guess you could try to explain al-Qaida or Saddam entirely in terms of Israel's existence. But it was only a small part of bin Laden's and Saddam's original ideology, and has clearly been deployed with varying degrees of emphasis by these murderers depending on their needs. But to focus on this while completely ignoring Wahhabist Islam's expansionist doctrines and vicious repression of human dignity and freedom (not least with regard to Jews, women and gays) is a bizarre but revealing emphasis. It's like explaining Hitler entirely in terms of the Versailles Treaty, or Stalinism exclusively in terms of the First World War. It is historically, analytically and politically callow. Is Didion unaware of the reactionary, fascistic, misogynist, homophobic and virulently anti-Semitic nature of those who want to kill us? Or does she still believe that American power is the greater problem?

But more revealing of the mind-set of today's left is Didion's belief that somehow open discussion has been curtailed, censored or chilled after 9/11 by a cadre of right-wing bullies. This is simply hooey. The First Amendment still exists. Those legions of leftists who occupy such establishment heights at most American university faculties and the nation's newsrooms and editorial boards, not to speak of the hyperliberal foundations, can still say whatever they think. But these days, they've actually got to endure criticism, opposition and occasionally ridicule as a consequence. They don't like this. They're used to writing their opinions to universal applause, prizes, sinecures and pliant reviews. Sorry to spoil the party, Joan. But debate in wartime is often a tough and grueling experience. Stop whining and start arguing.

(While you're at it, stop lying. Here's a particularly egregious sentence: "The president of Harvard recently warned that criticisms of the current government of Israel could be construed as 'anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.'" Not true. Larry Summers specifically defended free, robust and open debate about Israel's policies on campus. He listed very specific actions, particularly a divestment campaign that singled out Israel while far worse countries were ignored, as being 'anti-Semitic in their effect.' [You can read Summers' speech here.] Didion understands this distinction. So why does she seem to elide it?)

Then there's the simple and revealing refusal to address the real arguments of her opponents. Here is Didion's description of the reason for war against Saddam:

"The 'why' had also been settled. The President had identified Saddam Hussein as one of the evildoers. Yes, there were questions about whether the evildoer in question had the weapons we feared he had, and yes, there were questions about whether he would use them if he did have them, and yes, there were questions about whether attacking Iraq might not in fact ensure that he would use them. But to ask those questions was sissy, not muscular, because the President had said we were going to do it and the President, if he were to back down, risked losing the points he got on the muscular 'moral clarity' front."

There's nothing "sissy" about asking such questions. They need asking. The coming war against Iraq is a terribly dangerous operation, and thinking it through is vital. But any honest assessment of the argument will also address the following questions: What should the world do about the countless violations of U.N. resolutions that Saddam is guilty of? After 9/11, is there a good reason for worrying about the ambition of Islamic terrorism and its potential access to weapons of mass destruction? Isn't Saddam's regime a prime suspect for funneling such weapons to Islamic and other terrorists? Under those circumstances, what should an American president do? These are tough questions and they require honest engagement. Didion won't do that. She prefers cheap rhetorical shots to difficult logical questions. That's why her side has largely lost this debate. It avoids the central issue and prefers to fall back on old prejudices and unexamined certainties.

Take yet another revealing sentence:

"We have for example allowed American biological research to fall behind that in countries where stem cell programs are not confused with 'cloning' and 'abortion on demand,' countries in other words where rationality is not held hostage to the posturing of the political process."

It's a perfect summation of a worldview. The ethical issues around stem-cell research, cloning and abortion are not to be resolved by open, reasonable debate, interspersed with regular elections. Why? Because there is only one "rational" position. And it's Didion's. Got that? The rest is "the posturing of the political process." I think she means by this democratic debate and deliberation. (She's also wrong about stem-cell research. Different countries have a whole range of policies restricting and regulating the practice. It's not all rationality on one side and idiocy on the other.) But there you have the real agenda of the intellectual left: the imposition of their own view, which is the only one deemed worthy of "rationality," and a contempt for the messy process of democracy, especially if it empowers those who disagree with their mind-set.

Sorry, Joan. But I'll take the mess of deliberative democracy over your rational certainties any day of the week.

By Andrew Sullivan

Salon columnist Andrew Sullivan's commentary appears daily on his own Web site.

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