A Conversation with the Left About DiscoverTheNetwork.org
This is the second part in a series of debates with three leftists about how the left is defined in DiscoverTheNetwork.org. To see the first part with Michael Berube, click here. We hope this dialogue will be the foundation for a lengthy series of conversations with leftists about radicalism, leftism, liberalism and conservatism.
Part II: Prof. Robert Jensen and David Horowitz
FP: Today we have the pleasure of being joined by David Horowitz and Robert Jensen, an associate professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He styles himself a "critic of the U.S. empire" and is a member of the board of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center.
Prof. Jensen, thank you for visiting us at Frontpage Magazine. So what’s your view of DiscoverThe Network? Do you, like Professor Berube, distance yourself from that part of the far Left that has endorsed radical Islam because, as Prof. Berube notes, it “forfeits its moral authority to oppose totalitarianism, torture, and terrorism?”
Jensen: I agree with Prof. Berube’s basic point about the web site’s blurring of important distinctions between centrists, liberals and leftists. The labels and individuals listed on the site correspond to no sensible political categories I can imagine. Because the site is literally incoherent, I assume it was constructed for propaganda purposes. It’s worth noting that if you asked people with even minimal political knowledge and experience in any other part of the world to evaluate the site, you would have to wait quite some time for the laughter to subside -- they would assume the site is a joke. Most everywhere else in the world, left ideas are recognized as an important part of the political mix. The narrowness of the political spectrum in the mainstream of U.S. politics is striking.
Let’s take the category of “anti-American radicals.” This is simply a rejection of any meaningful conception of democracy. I’ve made the point before, as have many others: To accuse someone who criticizes U.S. policy of being “anti-American” is to reject any meaningful role for citizens in a democracy. For example, if I believe the U.S. invasion of Iraq was unlawful and immoral, should I simply shut up and capitulate to the forces that pressed for war? To label opposition to the policies of the powerful as “anti-American,” displays incredible contempt for democracy. It’s hard to take seriously any project that uses such terms.
On the question of radical Islam: I reject the pre-modern fundamentalist strains of any religion, be it Christian, Jewish, Hindu, or Islamic. I think all such non-rational philosophies are a threat to secular democratic government. I also recognize the right of people to resist illegal foreign occupation. Various groups in Iraq are exercising that right. I don’t think recognition of that right requires me to endorse the politics of any particular groups engaged in that resistance nor endorse all their tactics. I assume people can see the distinction. I also assume that people realize they have a moral and political responsibility to reject the illegal and immoral actions of their own government.
FP: Mr. Horowitz?
Horowitz: Robert Jensen really doesn’t like the idea of a database of the left in the first place, and in this I think he reflects what all leftists who have reacted to the site feel. They don’t want a light shined on their activities, agendas, and destructive achievements. They don’t want to be accountable for what they have done and for who they are. That’s why they don’t like DiscoverTheNetwork.org. The refusal of the left to be accountable for its deeds is a principal theme of a book Peter Collier and I wrote about the New Left that we played a role in, and that we titled, Destructive Generation. The leftists we wrote about did not want to make a balance sheet of what they had done, and did not want to consider how others who did not share their fantasies of a future redemption might view their achievements.
Robert Jensen says we blur distinctions between centrists, liberals and leftists, even though our database is not about centrists and liberals, except insofar as they enter into coalitions with or lend their support to the left. From Jensen’s point of view, which is actually situated at the far left end of the political spectrum, we have confused “centrists” and “liberals” with leftists in compiling DiscoverTheNetwork. In our view we have not. It would be interesting to see a comparable spectrum organized by Jensen, but there is no reason why our view of the spectrum should agree with his.
Jensen doesn’t like our specific categories either. What he really doesn’t like is the category “anti-American radical.” He probably doesn’t like the category “totalitarian radical” either but can’t find a way to deconstruct it.
Jensen, who has prematurely celebrated America’s “defeat” in Iraq in a statement after the battle of Fallujah, calls the very use of the term “anti-American” illegitimate. “To accuse someone who criticizes U.S. policy of being ‘anti-American’ is to reject any meaningful role for citizens in a democracy.” But of course the site does not accuse anyone who criticizes U.S. policy of being “anti-American.” If it did, there would be five categories of leftists ranging from “Totalitarian Radical” to “Moderate Left” and “Affective Left.” Instead there would be only one category in the site – “Anti-American Radical” -- since everyone in the database, in all categories, is critical – and in fact very critical -- of U.S. policy. Since we do not regard all critics of US policy as immoral we have taken the pains to make five categories to describe these critics, only one of which is defined as “anti-American” – although leftists who qualify as totalitarian radicals would also qualify as anti-American. Jensen is unfortunately typical of radical critics of DiscoverTheNetwork who simply ignore what we have actually written as though ignorance (or more properly, denial) is actually a form of argument. It is not.
Is “anti-American” a meaningful category? In Europe and elsewhere “anti-American” has actually been a staple description of a political attitude for half a century or more, and is employed not just by conservatives. Why is the idea of anti-group prejudice so difficult for Jensen to comprehend, particularly since it is a core theme of leftwing politics? Leftists like Jensen have no trouble in describing conservatives as anti-Arab, or anti-black, or anti-gay. So why should the idea of someone being “anti-American” be so incomprehensible?
Ward Churchill and Noam Chomsky, two well-known figures on the left, regard the United States as comparable to (or even worse than) Hitler Germany. Throughout his career and in many articles and books, Churchill has described America as a genocidal nation. That is why he referred to the innocent victims of 9/11 as “little Eichmanns,” since in conducting the business of America they were in his view also conducting genocide against innocent victims of American capitalism around the world. In many books and pontifications, Noam Chomsky has articulated a parallel judgment on American malevolence. Chomsky’s last book, Hegemony or Survival, is dedicated to the proposition that America is a threat to the survival of the planet.
In my opinion and that of DiscoverTheNetwork, these extreme views qualify as “anti-American.” They are not merely critical of an aspect of American policy but of America in its very constitution and structure. They condemn America in its essence. If America defends dictators, America is wrong; if America overthrows dictators it is wrong. Even when America does right, it does right for the wrong reason. This is a viewpoint reasonably described as “anti-American.” Jensen himself shares this perspective. To him America is an oppressive empire, which for the good of mankind should be defeated in Iraq. Jensen doesn’t conceal what he thinks. He just doesn’t want anyone to identify his extreme and negative views of America and its purposes for what they are.
Jensen: Mr. Horowitz knows perfectly well that I am not afraid of having attention focused on left ideas and political activity. I post all my writing on the web and spend countless hours trying to draw attention to left politics. I have never turned down an invitation to speak or debate in public. In fact, when I have tried to engage right-wing professors on my campus to foster such debate, I’ve been rebuffed. And when right-wing groups have posted their views on my activities (such as a “professor watch list” at my university) I have not only supported their right to do it, but praised them for being engaged politically, while critiquing some of the claims they made. Mr. Horowitz knows perfectly well that I'm not afraid of public engagement but am simply critiquing his position.
Yes, perhaps he and I would describe the political spectrum in different ways. But he makes no attempt to defend the way in which his web site collapses the distinction between center, liberal and left. I consider the term “left” to mark a consistent critique of illegitimate structures of authority and concentrations of power. Centrists and liberals, who typically endorse capitalism and state power, have a very different politics than leftists.
Mr. Horowitz seems confused about the difference between labeling a position anti-gay and anti-American. If someone says, ”I think gay people are sick,” it seems honest to call that anti-gay. It is an expression of contempt for gay people. If I say, “I think the U.S. attack on Iraq was illegal” or if I point to features of corporate capitalism and state power that I think harm people, I am critiquing a policy, systems, or institutions. I am not condemning America but am trying to help create a more just world. If democracy is a meaningful term, then no one policy, system, or institution is above critique. So, I agree that it is accurate to call me anti-war or anti-capitalist, but not anti-American.
Churchill and Chomsky can easily defend their own views, but it is clear from the historical record that the United States is based on an act of genocide against indigenous people. It seems minimally honest to recognize the genocidal history of the United States. Is the United States a threat to the survival of the planet? Given the reckless and barbaric fashion in which U.S. leaders (Republican and Democrat alike) have exercised that power -- especially since the end of World War II -- calling the United States a threat seems justified to me. As the United States pursues a new generation of nuclear weapons and presses to militarize space, trying to highlight that threat seems an obligation of citizenship.
Horowitz: Jensen apparently doesn’t want to understand the meaning of the words I have written. I didn’t write that he was unhappy with being described as a leftist. He is unhappy at being described as an “Anti-American Radical,” which is a very precise description of his point view. He regards America as imperialist, racist, oppressive, and genocidal throughout its history -- a reactionary power, whose social and economic structures need to be deconstructed, destroyed and replaced by a socialist state. He regards America not as a democracy in which the people are sovereign but as a hierarchy in which a ruling class deceives and manipulates a pliant public to carry on its predatory agendas. That’s why he regards his critique as a critique of power and not critique of the American people and their choices. That is why he regards a war that was sanctioned by a vote of the people (2004), by both parties in Congress (2002) and by UN resolution 1441, as “illegal” and illegitimate. People who do not accept the legitimacy of the democratic process are self-declared outlaws who have committed themselves to war against the American system. They are not just opponents of the party in power, they are opponents of the constitutional system that put them in power. They are anti-American.
No matter times he repeats the claim, DiscoverTheNetwork does not “collapse the distinction between center, liberal and left.” If Professor Jensen will go to the “Issues” module on DiscoverTheNetwork and click on “Progressivism” or “Liberalism,” he will find ample discussion of the left and its relation to liberalism. The individual and group profiles featured on DiscoverTheNetwork are careful to preserve these distinctions as well.
In denying that he is anti-American, Professor Jensen is just seeking to avoid the plain meaning of his positions. He has publicly wished for America’s defeat in Iraq. He has described the liberation of Iraq as an imperialist occupation. He has supported political forces that are at war with America and that regard America as the “Great Satan” – the fount of evil in the world. He has rejected the American system – not a particular policy but the entire constitutional system that creates American policies. That is what America is. To oppose what America is – in its very essence – is to be anti-American. At least that’s how we define it on DiscoverTheNetwork.org
And of course this is being kind to Professor Jensen. To describe America as a genocidal nation -- a nation that sets out to exterminate peoples -- is a form of political insanity. Professor Jensen inhabits an alternate reality conditioned by a preposterous fantasy that there is a perfect future waiting out there for people filled with hate against the imperfect country we all inhabit to create. But in order create this future perfection they must first destroy the imperfect present. Therefore they are willing to join forces with and encourage truly genocidal terrorists like Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in their war against America and the West.
This treason to one’s own country has a long and dishonorable history. It is described under the category “Fifth Column” in the Issues module on DiscoverTheNetwork.org
FP: Prof.Robert Jensen and Mr. Horowitz, thank you for joining Frontpage's discussion about DiscoverTheNetwork.org. We encourage our readers to stay tuned for Part III of this series, in which Mr. Horowitz will continue this dialogue with Timothy Burke, who blogs on Easily Distracted and is an assistant professor in the Dept. of History at Swarthmore College.