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The American left of the 21st century has reached the point where it defines itself by what it loathes. Leftists who once dreamt of a better world now spend their passion on their antipathies and seldom even mention social progress. The Democratic party's left wing no longer has any purpose except keeping conservatives out of power, so far a strikingly unsuccessful project.
Even so, the U.S. left remains influential. Between elections it may look like no more than a shaky alliance of Marxist professors, guilt-ridden millionaires, the Ford Foundation and Barbra Streisand; but David Horowitz, an articulate right-wing propagandist, declines to take it lightly. He knows that since the 1960s left-wing ideas have helped shape the American imagination. Leftist assumptions become mainstream assumptions.
Horowitz's new book, Unholy Alliance: Radical Islam and the American Left (Regnery), describes the latest blind alley down which the left has stampeded. Put plainly, American leftists responded to 9/11 by going over to the side of the enemy, radical Islam. They are captives of what Horowitz calls "neo-communism," a combination of romantic yearning for the Soviet empire and unreasoning hatred of capitalism and U.S. power. In practice, this means they sympathize with any force Washington opposes.
After 9/11, when the Americans began fighting the Taliban, leftist demonstrators declared the war in Afghanistan "racist." As Horowitz says,
"Within weeks of the most heinous attack on America in its history, radicals had turned their own country into villains."
He describes the bewilderment of Paul Berman, a New York writer who has spent decades searching for a humane leftist politics. Berman was attending the 2002 Socialist Scholars Conference in New York when the crowd applauded an Egyptian novelist's defence of a Palestinian suicide murderer.
How could that happen? How could secular socialists sit "in comradely assemblage," as Berman wrote, while someone defended the random murder of women and children in the name of God? Horowitz explains that radicals believe Western capitalism actually causes Islamic fanaticism. If capitalism wasn't so evil, the reasoning goes, then Arabs wouldn't turn to Islamism. Therefore, "The liberation of the world from private property ... will liberate Islamic fanatics from the need to be Islamic and fanatic."
In Hollywood the fight against terrorism has attracted only meagre support. Even when Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker, was assassinated for making a documentary in defence of Islamic women, Hollywood showed little interest. As Bridget Johnson pointed out on Wednesday in The Wall Street Journal, "We've heard nary a peep from Hollywood about the Van Gogh slaying." Johnson quoted a screenwriter, Roger L. Simon:
"It's stunning how silent the American artistic community, Hollywood in particular, has been about the murder. Do they care someone was killed for making a film which protested violent abuse against women? Are they even interested?"
Horowitz can explain that Hollywood's political posture derives from a tradition created by communists and renewed by the New Left.
Hollywood leftists remain mute because they desperately fear being associated, even in a distant way, with a cause that Washington has adopted. They hate George W. Bush much more than they fear the Islamists.
Unholy Alliance is directed at conservatives and those of independent mind who are open to persuasion. Horowitz can hardly expect a fair-minded reading by leftists, who consider him an apostate who turned in fury against his original beliefs. The son of two communists who lost their teaching jobs during the McCarthy period, he was a New Left journalist in the 1960s and a passionate supporter of the Black Panthers.
His close scrutiny of the Panthers, and the way leftists and the mainstream media treated them, eventually made him question every political opinion he owned.
He came to believe the Panthers were a murderous street gang who hid their thuggishness behind Marxist rhetoric. Many of his leftist friends, while knowing about the crimes of the Panthers, chose to ignore them, just as communists of two decades before had overlooked the crimes of Stalin. And the mainstream media, having bought the leftist propaganda about the Panthers as heroes, refused to confront facts that would disturb the mythology.
Horowitz was the exception. That experience turned him into a right-wing pamphleteer - a supporter of free enterprise, an enemy of America's enemies and an unrelenting critic of his old friends on the left. He's an interesting commentator who writes with an angry but controlled animation. And he's one journalist who can say with a reasonable claim to truth that he hasn't been seriously wrong since the 1960s.