Michael Bérubé’s The Left at War tells the story of some arguments around the Iraq war that only partly intersected with the fights that were raging in the blogosphere at the same time. The book is less interested in arguments between warbloggers and progressives, or between the center and the left of the Democratic party, than in the battles among left intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, Michael Walzer and, indeed, Michael Bérubé himself. Bérubé’s thesis is straightforward. Much of the opposition to the war, from writers like Chomsky and Alexander Cockburn sucked. And it sucked because these people adhered to a simplistic narrative in which the US was always evil, and intervention abroad was always imperialism under a thin facade of respect for human rights. What Bérubé calls the “Manichean Left” actually made it more difficult to mobilize against the Iraq war, because it provided pro-war writers with an excuse to brand all opponents on the war as crazy.
Bérubé traces back many of the arguments among left intellectuals to disagreements over the US role in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Many leftists, including Bérubé himself, supported the US intervention against Serbia, believing that it was justified as helping prevent genocide. Others – including Chomsky and Cockburn – disagreed. Some of those who disagreed did so by defending Serbian president Milosevic, who was indicted at the Hague for war crimes including the murder of over eight thousand Bosniaks at Srebenica (Milosevic died during the trial). Others disagreed volubly, pointing to the mountain of evidence of serious war crimes. These disputes became bitter and angry.
Bérubé was on the pro-intervention side in Yugoslavia (he was strongly against the Iraq war) – and believes that the anti-intervention people were wrong because of of their simplistic approach to politics. As I read him, he identifies two main problems with the anti-intervention left’s analysis. First, he argues that they effectively see all foreign interventions as imperialist expeditions. On their understanding of politics, it is effectively impossible for the US to intervene abroad in support of human rights, to prevent genocide or whatever. It is always about the money or the oil – even in situations such as former Yugoslavia where there isn’t much money or oil. Second, he argues that they have a crude and monolithic model of culture and media, under which it is pretty well impossible for real opposition to emerge from within the US. For these people it is like The Matrix – all Americans, except for a few brave freedom fighters, have been brainwashed by the Machine.
The Left at War argues that all of this is badly, horribly wrong, and needs to be rethought. First – the book holds out the hope that sometimes wars of intervention can make things better. If (in contrast to the Iraq war), interventions are in accordance with international law, and are aimed at supporting human rights, they can perhaps do more good than harm. Second – it argues that the Manichean left is much too pessimistic about the possibility of real opposition emerging. Chomsky and others predicted that the Internet was going to be just another corporate playground. They had no way of anticipating the emergence of the anti-war blogosphere as a significant force in debates over US foreign policy and the war in Iraq. Bérubé does concede that Chomsky et al. got it right in their description of the mainstream media’s slavering over the war, with embedded reporters, retired generals punditizing their tinny hearts out on CNN and the rest of the grisly business.
What would make things better? Here, Bérubé argues that a better understanding of culture – one which doesn’t equate the American people with the American sheeple – would help lefties avoid some of the critical errors that the Manichean left made. He draws in particular on cultural studies theorist Stuart Hall, who analyzed the beginnings of Thatcherism in the United Kingdom, and who argued that it reflected real cultural phenomena, rather than just a form of ideological hoodwinking.
This is a book that I learned a lot from (I should state up front that while I have never met Michael, I have corresponded with him and we blog on the same group blog). That said, there are things that I disagree with or want to question him on, a couple of which I’ll state up front, a couple of which may emerge in the conversation.
First – my feeling was that the book had two halves – one on what had gone wrong in the Iraq debate, and another on general theories of culture, and I wasn’t as convinced by the second as by the first. To put it another way – what practical lessons, if any, would a reading of the theories of Stuart Hall etc in the modern context provide? How could his insights translate into a movement that could help get things changed? Or is this not what we should be looking for?
Second – while I agree with Michael about a lot of things, I am somewhat more skeptical than he is about the possibility for pushing for respect for human rights and international law. I think that there is something to it (there is evidence that human rights norms sometimes have consequences), but I would not like to bet large amounts of money that the US or any other large state is likely to give up realpolitik in favor of a genuinely deep commitment to human rights any time soon. Nor do I think that it would do so, even if the progressive revolution that the teabaggers fear took place (progressives can be just as collectively selfish as conservatives). Finally, international law itself is often more about power than rights – the UN Security Council is all about big powerful states having a veto over certain kinds of action. So given all this – why should the left commit its resources to international law and human rights?
Third – couldn’t a Chomskyan media analyst take some comfort from the current state of play among blogs? Certainly, there are some important blogs that are continuing to be oppositional – but most of the important left-of-center bloggers of five or six years ago are either working for the Man (their blogs have been bought out by some big media group or another), or trying to become the Man themselves (by creating their own little media empires). Will this weaken the oppositional force of left-leaning over time?
Finally – a question that is more for readers than for Michael. It has been my impression that there has always been a separation between what you might describe as the Chomskyan left on the one hand (the people grouped around Z Magazine, Counterpunch, maybe Code Pink) and the netroots (who are strongly progressive – but want to see Democrats in power). Is this impression right? Are there people who identify both with the Chomskyan left and with the netroots? Are things changing because of disappointment with Obama?
Over to Michael, and to all of you.