Because of the war in Iraq, fierce campus debate and political activism regarding U.S. foreign policy has been unleashed. But something’s wrong with this picture: The campus left has become confused with the mainstream left. People speak of why “liberals” are against this war. Liberals are not against this war.
Attempts to frame the debate on Iraq as between liberals versus conservatives are phony. Two-thirds of liberals, 70 percent of Democrats and the majority of the left’s political and intellectual leadership support this war, including every serious Democratic presidential candidate and liberal thinkers like George Packer, Leon Wieseltier, Michael Ignatieff and Paul Berman. Instead, the confusion is largely the result of the radical campus left leading the anti-war charge and professing to speak in our name.
But there remains a vast divide in principle and policy between the left and the radical left. Unlike the bulk of American liberals, the campus left is a relatively tiny minority that includes, but is not limited to, Marxists, militant race-gender-class critics, those who despise America, and confused Democrats.
Fortunately, the campus left is and will remain politically useless because it is hopelessly mired in a dogmatism that should be deconstructed. First, relativism – the idea that all beliefs are equally valid – pervades campus leftist thought. Relativism is partly responsible for the far left’s dismal failure in condemning Islamic terrorism.
Second, wishful thinking is offered as a solution. We on the progressive left maintain a vision of a better world, but only the doctrinaire campus left seems unwilling to recognize that tradeoffs and compromises are necessary to reach that vision. They have an irresponsible and utopian understanding of how the world works, which usually leads to bold claims of universal truth. Hence, there are endless references to “truth,” “peace” and “justice,” as if they know exclusively how this is to be achieved.
Third, the campus left is plagued by an irremediable distrust of American political processes and media. When everything is explained by conspiratorial fantasies about oil adventures, neoconservative cabals and insidious media control, all American engagement can be seen as essentially corrupt and imperialist. In this way, serious debate on Iraq – though there is an enormously strong case for war – can be avoided.
Fourth, campus leftists have absorbed Marxist doctrine in all but name. To my knowledge, UCSB has at least two openly socialist groups. Nobody takes these upper-middle-class revolutionaries seriously because their ideas have proven to be wrong and worthless. But somehow their models have crept into the debate in the form of Marxist theories about imperialism and class struggle at the root of all conflict.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the American left considers itself part of a larger American debate. The campus left, however, sees itself as a consecrated few that single-handedly struggles against worldwide oppression. The combination of an unquestioning dogmatism and the absence of knowledgeable consideration is why a group like Students Stopping Rape takes a position on defense spending and the Queer Student Union calls for divestment from Israel.
A repudiation of the left’s fringe is imperative. There came a time when the conservative right took a stand against its radical adherents and declared, “You see those crazy militias and Ku Klux Klansmen? That’s not us.” Likewise, the left must take a stand against the radical left. We need to say, “You see those Marxists, Noam Chomskys and Ramsey Clarks? That’s not us.”
This is the essential task for foreign policy. How can we let the left be represented by those whose position on foreign policy is that they’re against it?
On Iraq, true liberals agonized over the difficult choice between two evils – between starting a war that kills innocents and leaving in place a system of soul-destroying tyranny. Our great tradition of liberal internationalism will not be hijacked by an isolated few whose rhetoric disdains that tradition in the first place.
Joey Tartakovsky is a junior global studies and Slavic studies major.