In an interesting essay published recently in the Jewish Chronicle, Alan Johnson, founder of the online journal Democratiya and co-author of The Euston Manifesto, tackles a question that underlies many of today’s political debates: “Why do some of our intellectuals find it so very difficult to see dictatorship when it is clear, or to summon up the moral clarity to oppose it?”
Focusing on Iran, Johnson argues:
The Iranian revolution bamboozled left-wingers from the start. First, where class consciousness “should” have been, there was religious fervour. Second, because its world-view split the globe into just two warring camps – reactionary exploiting nations that must be opposed and progressive exploited nations (usually also romanticised as noble and authentic) that must be supported – the left struggled to see clearly the independent history and reactionary character of Islamism […]
That revolutionary Iran could be a brutal and reactionary sub-imperialist power seeking regional hegemony did not compute to many commentators. The Manichean left could not even rouse itself to oppose the brutal tyranny of the regime because, when tyranny was opposed by America, it was miraculously reborn as “the resistance”.
As Johnson points out, the “Manichean left” also glorified Iran’s terrorist proxies Hamas and Hizbollah as “resistance” movements; the downright hilarious example he cites is American cultural theorist Judith Butler telling a campus teach-in in 2006 that “understanding Hamas, Hizbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important.”
Citing Jean Bethke Elshtain’s book Just War Against Terror, Johnson notes that according to Elshtain, one can identify “four strategies” that are used to sustain the world view of leftist ideologists:
distorting or ignoring facts, deploying twisted categories of a bygone era, taking refuge in false clarity derived from flawed analogies, and attacking the motivations of free societies such as America and Israel, while giving the benefit of every doubt to the fear societies (and their proxies) that attack the West.
While this sounds rather dry and perhaps also obvious, Johnson then goes on to demonstrate these strategies at work in some recent articles by Mehdi Hasan, senior political editor of the New Statesman. For me the best point he makes in this discussion is when he explains that the “second reality-avoidance strategy involves the use of clapped-out categories developed in the 1960s. The philosopher Michael Walzer has argued that many intellectuals are hamstrung by ‘the third worldist doctrines of the 1960s and 1970s’.”
Johnson argues that the result of this approach is that “politics is no longer a sphere of concrete responsibility […] but a sphere for the performance of a fossilised left-wing identity.”
I have to confess that I’ve never quite thought about it in these terms, but it seems rather intriguing to contemplate the possibility that some of our supposedly “leading” progressive intellectuals are actually stuck in some sort of mind-time-machine, oblivious to the changes of the past half century (and counting!). And it also sounds a bit as if these progressives were bitterly clinging to their “guns or religion”, doesn’t it?
How could I forget to mention my favorite example of a progressive regressive? Some two years ago, I wrote a post on “Iranian nukes and ‘progressive values’” that focused on the one and only Slavoj Zizek and his call to “give Iranian nukes a chance”:
But there are people on the left – or rather, people who claim to be on the left – who think that a nuclear-armed Iran is just what the world needs. “Give Iranian Nukes a Chance” is the playful title of an article published in August 2005 on the website of “In These Times”, an American magazine that describes itself as being committed to “progressive values”. The author of the article is the philosopher Slavoj Zizek who enjoys rock-star-like celebrity among his fans; indeed, in 2005, he even was the focus of a movie that presented him not only as an “eminent and intrepid thinker”, but also as “the Elvis of cultural theory”.
Zizek justified his plea to ‘give Iranian nukes a chance’ with his belief that the Cold War doctrine of MAD, i.e. mutually assured destruction, should be considered valid also for a nuclear-armed Iran, which could thus be expected to refrain from actually using its nuclear weapons in a war of aggression. Furthermore, Zizek argued that an Iranian nuclear arsenal would actually be a positive factor, because in his view, “countries like Iran should possess nuclear arms to constrain the global hegemony of the United States”.