Progressively regressive

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”.

5 responses to “Progressively regressive

  1. Two points. (1) Your analysis sounds a bit like that of David Mamet.

    (2) You might read, if you have not already done so, Bernard-Henri Lévy’s Left in Dark Times. Much of the book is BS but, the second half is rather brilliant, with him seeing the Left as having totally become lost to the extent of finding much admirable in the Nazi theorist Carl Schmitt, among other voices of the extreme right. And, as he notes, the Left has decided to watch silently the genocides in places like Sudan because to condemn such behavior would divert attention from their anti-imperialist – i.e. anti-US – agenda.

    • Ouch, point (1) hurts.
      (2) I’m familiar with BHL’s related writings and also some of the other books on these issues, e.g. Nick Cohen’s What’s left or Paul Berman’s writings, e.g. Flight of the Intellectuals.
      I’ve also just updated the post to add one of my favorite examples of the phenomenon Johnson describes.

      And, just as a reminder: since you seem so well-read, why not write a post to share your knowledge more visibly — it could be simply a follow-up post on something that comes up in my posts, to look a bit closer at a specific issue or give some background.

  2. Hi Petra,

    Thanks for the invitation. I am touched – really – by it. My problem is lack of time. To produce an article means research, checking sources, proofreading; in other words, lots of time. Time, to paraphrase Khan speaking to Captain Kirk, is a luxury I do not have. Rather, I have to pay for two kids in college, which limits my time for writing in a scholarly manner.

    I might, however, do so if I have something origin to say. I do, I think, have a topic for consideration – one you might give some thought to. It is my impression that Israeli Arabs, including the Christians among them, are instinctively hostile to your country; hence, the non-inclusion of Christian Arabs among those who serve in the IDF. What if, like the Druze, Christian Arabs in your country could, as the result of circumstance, be enticed to break with their Muslim brethren? The circumstance I am thinking of is the Arab “Spring,” which, for Christians in places like Egypt, is quickly turning into a nightmare – not to mention the already established reality in Gaza.

    It has been written – and it seems pretty likely – that Pan-Arabism attracted many Arab adherents because it offered the possibility of a better place in society than did traditional politics modeled on Islam as the dominant/organizing ideology for society. That worked for a while but, with the rise of Islamist politics, I cannot help thinking that Christians would want to resist that rise. In the past, Christians might have tended to be willing merely to fold into Muslim society as tolerated infidel. Today, the result is likely more to be fleeing the region or making a stand; this, because today’s Islamist politics is into purification of society, such that the role and status of Christians is likely to recede/deteriorate.

    Which leads to the question. Might not Israel attempt to improve its reputation among Christian Arabs and bring them to accept your country as protecting their rear-ends from the Islamists? Food for thought.

    That is a topic I would be interested in writing about were I to have the time but, at this point, I am not even sure what factors are really involved. In that regard, I note a Christian clergy person in Lebanon recently railing against Israel, akin to the views that Medieval Christians held. And, of course, there are no doubt Christians among those who see your country as dividing their families. But, I have to think that pragmatism must lurk around somewhere.

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