Saturday, January 2, 2010

More on The Left at War

Within a few hours I'll fall silent for 3 months. I promise, the reason is time limited, so I'll be back without fail. For now, though, I have only a short time to write. This post won't include the substantiating links or extended quotes I'd like. But I do want to give a fuller account of Michael Bérubé's book, The Left at War.

Most of all, it is a clear and insightful account of one particular, devastating division on the Left. The loud and seemingly omnipresent Chomsky/Z/Counterpunch-Left versus those who are less iconoclastic, much more in touch with reality, and hopefully form a widespread 'silent majority.'

One downside I can't ignore: it's far less funny than Bérubé's other popular books. At one point, I blamed Chomsky for sucking the air out, but that's not quite the issue. The titles, including chapter titles like 'Nowhere Left to Go' (perhaps that's slightly inaccurate, but I'm not checking it, for time), introducing the absurdity of leftier-than-thou politics, or 'Is it Hegemonic, Yet?,' are often witty. However the few jokes sprinkling most chapters fall flat because they don't add up to a funny tone. It is only in the chapter 'What is this cultural in cultural studies' (again, the title is probably slightly off) where the jokes really flow. One of the best is aimed at one of Bérubé's heroes, Richard Rorty.

More seriously, is the issue of Israel and antisemitism. Very quickly, he quotes Moishe Postone and Ellen Willis. His view, generally, on Israel, is to be commended. He writes that, when he opposed Israel's invasion of Lebanon, he found a professor from DePaul (and this should probably be considered context for Norman Finkelstein's failure to get tenure there; the professor here is not Finkelstein) calling him a Nazi apologist for not doing so as rabidly as the other professor thought appropriate.

But he largely drops the matter. He quotes Postone arguing that Islamic antisemitism, like other antisemitism, is a fetishistic backlash in a world perceived as threatening, but he moves on to other issues. Perhaps that's because he views the discourse surrounding the issue as "toxic," and steers away from it.

He takes on James Petras, because it's easy to get agreement on Petras, but he doesn't really get to the more influential Alexander Cockburn (Counterpunch is mentioned twice, in general statements, but Cockburn only warrants a footnote where he's taken to task for his position on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan). The book was written too early for Bérubé to comment on the attempt at Counterpunch to rehabilitate the Medieval blood libel or Cockburn's most blatant attempt to reach out to the antisemitic/isolationist far right. But Cockburn had already published plenty of Gilad Atzmon and Paul Craig Roberts, the 'father of Reaganomics' who also writes for the white supremacist Bérubé doesn't mention the SWP (in Britain) which hosted Gilad Atzmon repeatedly at its Marxism festival.

I don't want to criticize Bérubé for not writing the book I would have written, because then I'd have learned nothing, but I think it would have served the book to detail why antisemitism is often a part of Manichean movements for change, whether on the right or left, and often leads to dangerous left/right alliances. In fact, antisemitism often seems to define a certain cutoff point (even better than the "we are living in The Matrix"/"Manufacturing Consent" view he criticizes) where violence (from Timothy McVeigh, al Qaeda, or the Red Army Fraktion) comes to be seen as reasonable.

And, of course, he could have done a lot to explain why so many Jews are worried about these trends on the Left. This might have served to make the topic less toxic. But then it might be a different book. The one he wrote is absolutely worth reading, and one reason is what he does include on antisemitism. The bigger reason, though, is the summary of Stuart Hall that every other review will mention.

See you all in April!!