What's a Progressive To Do?

In addition to the shock and grief provoked by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, many American progressives have felt a profound confusion in the weeks since. Suddenly, it was hard to be sure how our politics related to these events or to the new world situation. Do our issues still matter to anyone but us? Do we have anything to say to the average American? How can we offer a credible alternative to a bomb-first, ask-questions-later mentality? Where do social justice and environmental renewal stand in the nation's reordered priorities? That hoariest of '60's radical cliches has come true in a wickedly ironic way: the times, they are a-changing.

National quests for revenge are always hard times for progressive politics. Few Americans turn leftward for rhetorical comfort in times like these. Unsatisfied by the measured, rational perspective that is leftism at its best, even many progressives have decided that the left has nothing of value to say about the attacks. "The Left does not speak for me on this issue," wrote Tristin Laughter, a Bay Area activist and music publicist, in a widely-distributed e-mail. A close friend of hers died in the attacks.

"To analyze the causation of the terrorists' actions is to accept their violence as a legitimate political expression," Laughter wrote. "I do not. Now I know, in a visceral, human way, that the United States has enemies in the global arena, enemies capable of a brutality and a barbarism which marks their depravity. If being an American Leftist today means being defending that, then, I can't be a Leftist."

Influential "maverick leftist" Christopher Hitchens put it more succinctly in a controversial attack on Noam Chomsky and others in The Nation: "No political coalition is possible with such people and, I'm thankful to say, no political coalition with them is now necessary. It no longer matters what they think." Hitchens does not specify exactly who, in their absence, would be approved to join his coalition.

The right has long argued that the left doesn't really take human nature into account, that people are motivated by ugly impulses that the left would rather not acknowledge. Only the right, they say, understands the feral, selfish emotions that supposedly drive all people. Suddenly, in the anguish following the attacks, this line of reasoning made sense to some number of progressives -- nobody can say, at this point, how many. Of course, commentators like Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Barbara Kingsolver and Howard Zinn are right to insist on some perspective and context on these horrifying events. To trivialize such commentary as knee-jerk anti-Americanism is the kind of superficial thinking that the likes of Hitchens should be beyond. If nothing else, such perspective could temper the US military response and avoid provoking further retaliatory attacks, making for a more effective "war on terrorism."

But the mistakes the left's commentators made in the days following the attacks were mistakes of strategy, not logic. Progressives can ill afford to cede the well-earned mantle of compassion to the right. People whose entire public lives have been spent in the pursuit of justice suddenly found themselves on the defensive against charges of indifference to suffering. Most of this was a case of words being put in mouths; for instance, Katha Pollitt's reluctance to display the flag, as described in The Nation, was hardly equivalent to a letter of support for the Taliban.

And if some leftists sputtered in shock immediately following the attacks, they were hardly the only people on Earth to do so. Hitchens and his Republican admirer Andrew Sullivan have spent precious few column inches on people like right-wing "attack dog" Ann Coulter, whose call to invade Muslim countries and "convert them to Christianity" got her booted from the pages of the National Review. Such lunatic ravings lie much further in fantasyland than anything Noam Chomsky had to say, but in America the sins of the left always call down sterner punishment than the sins of the right, not least among "maverick leftists."

Before the US bombings of Afghanistan began, some said that there were early signs that progressive critiques have influenced the Bush administration's course of action toward restraint. "You might have experienced the past two weeks as a blur of intolerant, militaristic jingoism," wrote Matt Welch on workingforchange.com, "but I saw a president go out of his way to embrace Islam, a defense secretary talk about the futility of carpet-bombing any country, and a secretary of state urge restraint and delicate multilateralism at every press conference." Such influence is, in part, a measure of the relative strength that the left has built over the past several years -- very relative, to be sure, but still far beyond anything that progressives enjoyed during the 1980s and early 1990s. The question now is whether that momentum can be sustained. Is anybody still listening?

"In many ways, it's much too early to say what will happen," says Frank Llewellyn, acting director of Democratic Socialists of America. "But a couple of things are clear. It's going to be harder to raise certain kinds of issues. It's less likely that Democrats will recapture the House. People engaged in third party work will have less space to work in."

Most obviously, the American bombing campaign has become the primary immediate issue for many activists, forcing them to decide what their priorities are. Jesse Kirchner sits on the Coordinating Committee of Students Against Sweatshops. He says his SAS chapter at the University of Arizona took a hard look at whether to put sweatshop issues aside to fight against the war.

"We thought about whether to put SAS basically on hold and just do antiwar organizing," Kirchner says. "But we decided pretty quickly and unanimously that that was a bad idea. We wanted to put SAS stuff first."

Like the rest of the world, the left must now find ways to make the best of a terrible situation. Some progressives have pointed out that the changed landscape may not be entirely unfriendly to the left. If the defining values of our politics are compassion and community, we may find more openings in the minds of the public than anyone expects. "There are hopeful signs as well as discouraging signs," says Betsy Leondar-Wright of United for a Fair Economy. "Look at the incredible public spiritedness that we saw in New York for weeks. Many people have been shaken out of the consumerism and individualism that are our national disease."

When the attacks hit, UFE was preparing to release a report about changing public attitudes toward privatization. Their staff quickly altered the emphasis of the report to point out the role of privatization and deregulation in diminishing airline safety. "Suddenly, all these small efforts to stop privatization gained resonance with millions of people," Leondar-Wright says. "It's an important conversation to be having."

Llewellyn also sees possibilities in the way Americans have responded to the crisis, and their new outlook on the wider world. "For example, the idea that the government shouldn't spend money has been altered," he says.

To turn a shocked, grieving nation leftward is an enormous task, but one that shouldn't be abandoned. Like most Americans, progressive activists are shaking off the dust, taking a deep breath and getting back to their work.

"Here I am, the media person for UFE," says Leondar-Wright, "and if my phone rang in the two weeks after the attacks, it was my sweetheart calling to check in. But now we've launched this campaign (about privatization) and it's going really well."

By reaffirming core values like community and compassion, the left can defend the advances of the last few years and maybe even win new ones.

"People are hungry for ways to contribute," says Leondar-Wright. "Well, we can provide opportunities for people to be public spirited, too."

Llewellyn agrees. "Most of what we do is based on the best parts of values like justice and opportunity," he says. "We can't give up on those."

Jason Toon is a writer in St. Louis, Mo.

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