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A Friendly Drink in a Time of War

by Paul Berman

February 5, 2004 | 7:00 pm

A friend leaned across a bar and said, "You call the war in Iraq an anti-fascist war. You even call it a left-wing war -- a war of liberation. That language of yours. And yet, on the left, not too many people agree with you."

"Not true," I said. "Apart from X, Y and Z, whose left-wing names you know very well, what do you think of Adam Michnik in Poland? And doesn't Vaclav Havel count for something in your eyes? These are among the heroes of our time. Anyway, who is fighting in Iraq right now? The coalition is led by a Texas right-winger, which is a pity; but in the second rank, by the prime minister of Britain, who is a socialist, sort of, and, in the third rank, by the president of Poland, a communist -- an ex-communist, anyway. One Texas right-winger and two Europeans who are more or less on the left. Anyway, these categories, right and left, are disintegrating by the minute. And who do you regard as the leader of the worldwide left? Jacques Chirac? A conservative, I hate to tell you."

My friend persisted.

"Still, most people don't seem to agree with you. You do have to see that. And why do you suppose that is?"

That was an aggressive question. And I answered in kind.

"Why don't people on the left see it my way? Except for the ones who do? I'll give you six reasons. People on the left have been unable to see the anti-fascist nature of the war because...." My hand hovered over the bar, ready to thump six times, demonstrating the powerful force of my argument.

"The left doesn't see because" -- thump! -- "George W. Bush is an unusually repulsive politician, except to his own followers, and people are blinded by the revulsion they feel. And, in their blindness, they cannot identify the main contours of reality right now. They peer at Iraq and see the smirking face of George W. Bush. They even feel a kind of schadenfreude, or satisfaction at his errors and failures. This is a modern, television-age example of what used to be called 'false consciousness.'"

Thump! "The left doesn't see because a lot of otherwise intelligent people have decided, a priori, that all the big problems around the world stem from America -- even the problems that don't. This is an attitude that, 60 years ago, would have prevented those same people from making sense of the fascists of Europe, too."

Thump! "Another reason: a lot of people suppose that any sort of anti-colonial movement must be admirable or, at least, acceptable. Or they think that, at minimum, we shouldn't do more than tut-tut -- even in the case of a movement that, like the Baath Party, was founded under a Nazi influence. In 1943, no less!"

Thump! "The left doesn't see because a lot of people, in their good-hearted effort to respect cultural differences, have concluded that Arabs must, for inscrutable reasons of their own, like to live under grotesque dictatorships and are not really capable of anything else, or won't be ready to do so for another 500 years, and Arab liberals should be regarded as somehow inauthentic. Which is to say, a lot of people, swept along by their own high-minded principles of cultural tolerance, have ended up clinging to attitudes that can only be regarded as racist against Arabs.

"The old-fashioned left used to be universalist, used to think that everyone, all over the world, would some day want to live according to the same fundamental values, and ought to be helped to do so. They thought this was especially true for people in reasonably modern societies with universities, industries and a sophisticated bureaucracy -- societies like the one in Iraq. But no more. Today, people say, out of a spirit of egalitarian tolerance, Social democracy for Swedes! Tyranny for Arabs!, And this is supposed to be a left-wing attitude? By the way, you don't hear much from the left about the non-Arabs in countries like Iraq, do you? The left, the real left, used to be the champion of minority populations, of people like the Kurds. No more. The left, my friend, has abandoned the values of the left -- except for a few of us, of course."

Thump! "Another reason: A lot of people honestly believe that Israel's problems with the Palestinians represent something more than a miserable dispute over borders and recognition -- that Israel's problems represent something huger, a uniquely diabolical aspect of Zionism, which explains the rage and humiliation felt by Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia. Which is to say, a lot of people have succumbed to anti-Semitic fantasies about the cosmic quality of Jewish crime and cannot get their minds to think about anything else.

"I mean, look at the discussions that go on even among people who call themselves the democratic left, the good left -- a relentless harping on the sins of Israel, an obsessive harping, with very little said about the fascist-influenced movements that have caused hundreds of thousands and even millions of deaths in other parts of the Muslim world. The distortions are wild, if you stop to think about them. Look at some of our big, influential liberal magazines -- one article after another about Israeli crimes and stupidities, and even a few statements in favor of abolishing Israel, and hardly anything about the sufferings of the Arabs in the rest of the world. And even less is said about the Arab liberals -- our own comrades, who have been pretty much abandoned. What do you make of that, my friend? There's a name for that, a systematic distortion -- what we Marxists, when we were Marxists, used to call ideology."

Thump! "The left doesn't see because a lot of people are, in any case, willfully blind to anti-Semitism in other cultures. They cannot get themselves to recognize the degree to which Nazi-like doctrines about the supernatural quality of Jewish evil have influenced mass political movements across large swaths of the world. It is 1943 right now in huge portions of the world, and people don't see it. And so, people simply cannot detect the fascist nature of all kinds of mass movements and political parties. In the Muslim world, especially."

Six thumps. I was done. My friend looked incredulous. His incredulity drove me to continue.

"And yet," I insisted, "if good-hearted people like you would only open your left-wing eyes, you would see clearly enough that the Baath Party is very nearly a classic fascist movement, and so is the radical Islamist movement, in a somewhat different fashion -- two strands of a single impulse, which happens to be Europe's fascist and totalitarian legacy to the modern Muslim world. If only people like you would wake up, you would see that war against the radical Islamist and Baathist movements, in Afghanistan exactly as in Iraq, is war against fascism."

I grew still more heated.

"What a tragedy that you don't see this! It's a tragedy for the Afghanis and the Iraqis, who need more help than they are receiving. A tragedy for the genuine liberals all over the Muslim world! A tragedy for the American soldiers, the British, the Poles and everyone else who has gone to Iraq lately, the nongovernmental organization volunteers and the occupying forces from abroad, who have to struggle on bitterly against the worst kind of nihilists, and have been getting damn little support or even moral solidarity from people who describe themselves as anti-fascists in the world's richest and fattest neighborhoods.

"What a tragedy for the left, the worldwide left. This left of ours which, in failing to play much of a role in the anti-fascism of our own era, is right now committing a gigantic historic error. Not for the first time, my friend! And yet, if the left all over the world took up this particular struggle as its own, the whole nature of events in Iraq and throughout the region could be influenced in a very useful way, and Bush's many blunders could be rectified, and the struggle could be advanced."

My friend's eyes widened, maybe in astonishment, maybe in pity.

He said, "And so, the United Nations and international law mean nothing to you, not a thing? You think it's alright for America to go do whatever it wants, and ignore the rest of the world?"

I answered, "The United Nations and international law are fine by me, and more than fine. I am their supporter. Or, rather, would like to support them. It would be better to fight an anti-fascist war with more than a begrudging U.N. approval. It would be better to fight with the approving sanction of international law -- better in a million ways. Better politically, therefore militarily. Better for the precedents that would be set. Better for the purpose of expressing the liberal principles at stake. If I had my druthers, that is how we would have gone about fighting the war. But my druthers don't count for much. We have had to choose between supporting the war, or opposing it -- supporting the war in the name of anti-fascism, or opposing it in the name of some kind of concept of international law. Anti-fascism without international law, or international law without anti-fascism. A miserable choice, but one does have to choose, unfortunately."

My friend said, "I'm for the U.N. and international law, and I think you've become a traitor to the left. A neocon!"

I said, "I'm for overthrowing tyrants, and since when did overthrowing fascism become treason to the left?"

"But isn't George Bush himself a fascist, more or less? I mean, admit it!"

My own eyes widened. "You haven't the foggiest idea what fascism is," I said. "I always figured that a keen awareness of extreme oppression was the deepest trait of a left-wing heart. Mass graves, 300,000 missing Iraqis, a population crushed by 35 years of Baathist boots stomping on their faces -- that is what fascism means! And you think that a few corrupt insider contracts with Bush's cronies at Halliburton and a bit of retrograde Bible-thumping and Bush's ridiculous tax cuts and his bonanzas for the super-rich are indistinguishable from that? Indistinguishable from fascism? From a politics of slaughter? Leftism is supposed to be a reality principle. Leftism is supposed to embody an ability to take in the big picture. The traitor to the left is you, my friend...."

But this made not the slightest sense to him, and there was nothing left to do but to hit each other over the head with our respective drinks.



Paul Berman is the author of "Terror and Liberalism." His book "The Passion of Joschka Fischer" will come out in the spring. Reprinted with permission from the winter 2004 issue of Dissent Magazine, www.dissentmagazine.org.

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