War: The Great Clarifier

by , August 05, 2006

In the 1920s, H. L. Mencken was considered a man of the Left, due to his opposition to prohibition and the cultural know-nothingism of what he mockingly called "the booboisie." By the 1930s, however – although his views had changed not one whit – he was being derided as a right-wing extremist by the New Dealers, on account of his contempt for Franklin Roosevelt and his refusal to jump on the bandwagon for war. The same was true of Albert J. Nock.

The idea of "Left" and "Right" is, today, being similarly transformed: wars always do this, and the Iraq war (and whatever comes next: perhaps Iran) is no different. I am always astonished by references in the ostensibly "right-wing" media to my alleged "leftism." For example, one Candace de Russy, writing in National Review online, avers,

"The extremist anti-war left is beside itself with rage against [Wall Street Journal columnist John] Fund and others who dare to challenge its domination of the academy, and in particular Middle East studies. See, for example, Justin Raimondo’s diatribe against Fund, whom he labels ‘Yale’s very own Torquemada,’ as well as against what he calls ‘the Fund-amentalist hate campaign’ against the Taliban Man. For good measure Raimondo goes on to attack the entire neo-con movement as a ‘perpetual motion machine of hate’ and David Horowitz as a ‘professional witch-hunter.’"

To Candace and her confreres at NRO, anyone who opposes the neocon agenda is, by definition, part of "the left." Okay, so she probably doesn’t know I’m a contributing editor of The American Conservative, and author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (1993), but her abysmal ignorance is not limited to these easily missed facts; it is exemplified by the knee-jerk response of someone who doesn’t care about facts at all, and simply registers "for" or "against" on a number of litmus-test issues, of which the politics of the Middle East is perhaps the most important (from the neocon point of view). Are you against the war? Then you’re a "leftist." Do you breathe a word of sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people? Then you’re a terrorist-supporting "leftist"! End of discussion.

One big difference between the neocon "Right" and the Old Right of yore is that, in the former, there is no allowable dissent from the party line – and especially not in the realm of foreign policy. The doctrine of global interventionism is the central dogma in the neocon’s worldview, and anyone who crosses over into even vaguely ambiguous territory – e.g., Francis Fukuyama – is subjected to a withering volley of relentless attacks. There is a Soviet quality to these vituperations, perhaps a vestigial remnant of the neocons’ leftist origins: recall that David Frum, the neocons’ commissar of political correctness, in penning his long screed in National Review against Pat Buchanan, Bob Novak, and other antiwar conservatives and libertarians, including myself, ended his peroration with this:

"War is a great clarifier. It forces people to take sides. The paleoconservatives have chosen – and the rest of us must choose too. In a time of danger, they have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them."

There is to be no discussion, no debate, no opportunity for us paleocon deviationists to make our case to the conservative public: the Frum-cons will close their ears and shield their eyes from our heresy. These people hold a Truth so pure that it cannot risk contamination – or endure examination.

Yes, war is a great clarifier. As the Bush administration sinks deeper into the Iraqi quagmire and the neocons plot another foray, this time into Iran, the geopolitical, financial, and domestic political consequences of our war-crazed foreign policy are all too apparent, and whatever else one may say about them, what one cannot say – with a straight face – is that they are conducive to conservatism in any way, shape, or form. As, one by one, the pillars of our old Republic fall away – or are hacked to pieces – and the bloated grandiosity of an Empire rises above the ruins, real conservatives (and libertarians, such as myself) look on in horror, and are labeled "extreme leftists" for our trouble.

The neoconservative claim to the legacy of the American Right is tenuous, and one could easily imagine these consummate opportunists attaching themselves to yet another unlucky host – say, the Democratic Party – if that is where their eternal quest for Power draws them. As for us, we have our own legacy, the tradition of the Old Right, and our own sense of history, which the revolutionary Jacobins of neoconservatism reject as a matter of principle. In the end, the season of flux will come to an end, the old polarities will return, and we will all be the wiser, having learned the lesson that labels mean nothing, and principles are everything.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

Today’s column originally appeared in the Aug. 28 issue of The American Conservative as part of a symposium entitled "What Is Left? What Is Right? Does It Matter?" Thirty contributors from across the political spectrum addressed the question, and it is one that is especially timely as Israel’s war of aggression in Lebanon puts new strains on the limits of the traditional liberal-conservative dichotomy.

The left-liberal wing of the Democratic Party, which is making political capital out of the Iraqi quagmire, has nothing to say about Israel’s Lebanese quagmire – and especially not about our part in subsidizing and egging them on. The Democrats pushed to have Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki barred from speaking to a joint session of Congress because he had dared describe the Israeli invasion of Lebanon as "aggression" – a faux pas in Washington no matter what party you belong to. Congress voted to endorse the murderous Israeli assault, without mentioning any need for restraint or deploring the targeting of civilians and Lebanon’s infrastructure: there were only eight dissenting votes.

Yet this Soviet-like near-unanimity is belied by developments on the Right, where Republican "realists" are questioning the value of our government’s "special relationship" with Israel – and warning us about the power wielded by the Israel lobby, which virtually dictates U.S. policy in the Middle East. Israel’s disgraceful conduct in prosecuting the war has further alienated many who, like Professor Steve Bainbridge – who teaches law at UCLA and writes a popular blog – are dissenting from the neocon-orchestrated cheering section for the IDF.

The American Conservative has been an important part of this season of flux, as I call it above: as editor Scott McConnell says in the introduction to the symposium, "since its inception, TAC has been dealing with questions of what Right and Left mean in the modern context, and to what extent the terms even apply anymore," and the symposium is a great read: take it to the beach. And that’s another reason to subscribe to The American Conservative. The magazine, of which I am a contributing editor, has run the most effective and interesting articles against the Iraq war and militarism in general of any political publication in America. So go ahead – subscribe. You’ll be glad you did.

Warning: Our summer fundraising drive is starting this coming Monday. You can get a head start, however – pulling off a preemptive strike, if you will – by going here and doing what needs to be done.

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