Whose left is it anyway?

Sam Smith
2002

News that Christopher Hitchens has discovered his inner imperial self was greeted exuberantly by the Washington Post, which gave him Kissingeresque space to lash out at his former comrades on the left.

As I read Hitchens’ piece, two things came to mind. The first was Elmer Davis’ comment about those on the hard left who had taken a hard right turn: it never seemed to occur to them that they might be wrong both times.

The second thought was of a Sunday long ago when one of my sons was being confirmed in the Episcopal Church so he would not later, as my friend Warren Myers once said, miss the exquisite pleasure of losing one’s faith. The bishop did his job perfunctorily and then turned towards the altar.

Just a moment, our minister said, “We also have one to be received.” The bishop suddenly brightened because those simple words signified true triumph: he was about to grab for his church a former servant of the Pope.

It is one thing to get little boys to pretend for a morning that they understand the Apostles’ Creed; quite another for a real Catholic to defect. The editor of the Post Outlook section probably felt the same joy.

I, however, was troubled by a matter that lay beyond Christopher’s view on Iraq, arguable as that was.

Once again “the left” was being defined by the habits, opinions, and proclivities of a tiny minority with whom the author had some familiarity. This tendency, predominant among writers at either end of the New York shuttle, is so misleading that it brings into question the other matters being discussed.

In fact, there are a number of lefts.

There is an ideological left centered in New York City, which seems barely aware that the socialist factionalism of the 1930s and 1940s is no longer relevant. If these leftists were baseball announcers, they would spend their time debating the relative virtues of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams rather than describing what was happening on the field. They tend to be tedious, trivial, and anachronistically tendentious. They are also, no matter what Hitchens and the Nation magazine say about it, largely irrelevant.

The intellectual left, in its academic variety at least, has also dried up, similarly a victim of too much discussion of archaic matters that leaves little time for today’s work. It is probably not accidental that the best idea to revive black politics that some professors could come up with was the reparations issue; it is just so much more comfortable discussing slavery rather than the mass imprisonment of young black males, housing discrimination or the role of the black soldier in imperial America.

There are exceptions such as Howard Zinn and those medical professors working on national health care. But the campus has been corporatized and specialized like everything else and to the extent that there is a living left, it is one that has yet to graduate.

The institutional left, much of it headquartered in Washington, is largely engaged in sterile, ritualistic reiteration of what were once vibrant mechanisms for hope.

Then there is then what might be called iconographic left, which uses the power of images, sounds and words. It can be as useful as Rage Against the Machine and as stupid as Barbra Streisand. But it is rarely more than the semiotic quartermaster corps of a larger movement.

The most important exception is when the images, sounds, or words serve as a catalyst – a writer offering a new idea, a rock musician catching just the right lyrics, and so forth.

Even at their best, these lefts – ideological, intellectual, institutional, iconographic – represent but a fraction of what is needed for significant social and political change.

The really important left – the idiomatic, colloquial left of people who never read the Nation, let alone have a column in it – is what really makes things happen.

And unless you happen to be Betty Friedan or Martin Luther King Jr. saying just the right words at just the right moment, the truth is that the left to which Hitchens alludes simply isn’t that important.

I have always been far closer to the idiomatic, colloquial left than to the more elite varieties. In fact, I missed much of the conventional 60s because I was working with SNCC and running a newspaper in a community on the edge of riot, and helping to start a progressive third party that would actually elect people to office.

I have never gotten on that well with Hitchens’ former pals in the elite left because I never could find the time to straighten out my paradigm.

It turns out it wasn’t all that important anyway, because the people who made the difference were not the famous talkers but the little known doers, ordinary people, who in Conrad’s phrase, for one brief moment did something out of the ordinary.

They were people who had not studied Marx and Hegel and couldn’t tell a Trotskyite from a troll. But they knew, in Pogo’s words, when to “stand on the piano and demand outrage action.” These are the people of whom Carl Sandberg wrote:

I am the people–the mob–the crowd–the mass.
Do you know that all the great work of this world is done through me?
I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the world’s food and clothes.

I am the audience that witnesses history. The Napoleons come from me and the Lincolns. They die. and
then I send forth more Napoleons and Lincolns. . .
Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red
drops for history to remember. Then – I forget.

When I, the people, learn to remember, when I, the People
use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget
who robbed me last year, who played me for
a fool – then there will be no speaker in all the world
say the name: “The People”, with any fleck of a
sneer in his voice or any far off smile of derision.
The mob – The crowd – The mass – will arrive then.

Consistently, the east coast shuttle left from which Hitchens has departed has been indifferent about, ignorant of, or even in opposition to the issues of the idiomatic, colloquial left.

The people who are changing the way other people think about things are found scattered around the nation. And when some of them came together in the most effective progressive political organization of modern times – the Green Party – they were not only not welcomed into the club, they were frequently excoriated.

As for the critics of an Iraqi invasion, they are typically just ordinary citizens who have learned without the help of Ramsey Clark to be scared to death of what their leaders are about to do to them.

Hitchens and his ilk will continue to have their little debates, all carefully framed in a manner that excludes most of the people they claim to care about and most of the people who actually produce change. It worked at university and it works now. But it has little to do with either America or the left as it really is.

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