interesting times

New Hope and New Danger on the Left

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

Watching Congresswoman Ilhan Omar this past week has been, shall we say, illuminating. In some ways, I find myself inspired. Finally in 2019, we have one of two Muslim women in the U.S. Congress, proudly wearing a hijab, and immediately destroying any stupid stereotypes of Muslim women as subservient or silent. We have a seemingly fearless and often charming woman of color with the temerity to interrogate the overwhelmingly white and male foreign policy blob in the heart of our political system. We have a refugee from Somalia as a young congresswoman, a hard-left analogue to the great Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

This, if you need reminding, is America in 2019. Whatever the social-justice left believes about our systemic oppression and whatever the Trump right believes about the core ethnic identity of a lost America, this is the most successful, multicultural, multiracial democratic experiment in the history of humankind. Omar is part of it. If her success doesn’t make you proud of America, in this broad and nonideological sense, there’s something critical you don’t understand about this country, and why so many of us immigrants love it so.

There was also something completely riveting about her breaking of taboos. The money and influence of AIPAC should be very much part of any debate about foreign policy in this country — because AIPAC is a hugely influential lobby, and is extremely successful at what it does. AIPAC has been critical to ensuring U.S. support for Israel’s slow but sure annexation of the West Bank, and its hideous, dehumanizing treatment of Palestinians in that occupied territory.

It was also exhilarating to see a congresswoman confront a figure who has pleaded guilty to misleading Congress before, and who helped cover up and minimize the slaughter of more than 800 civilians, including children, in El Mozote, El Salvador. Elliott Abrams might argue that supporting murderous death squads, and concealing their atrocities from the American people, was part of the price for moving El Salvador to democracy. Fine, then let him argue that — as he did. But that Abrams would go before the House and not be called to account for his past record would be an outrage. Making the powerful uncomfortable is what the Congress is supposed to do.

In all of this excitement — and I could say the same about the environmental ambition of the Green New Deal — I can’t help drawing parallels between what we’re seeing in Democratic Party and the similar far-left wave of enthusiasm in Britain, where a new tide of youthful energy has flooded the British Labour Party and transformed its ambitions almost overnight from ameliorating capitalism to full-on socialism.

There was an infectiousness to the excitement in 2015, in part because full-fledged socialism seemed to be answering a genuine and massive crisis of capitalism. It spoke to those under 40 whose futures are debt-ridden, who have little hope of property ownership, and struggle to manage with precarious, low wages. It rallied a sense of the common good against the isolation and depression of austerity. It actually took the science of climate catastrophe seriously. (It’s worth noting that the original version of the Green New Deal was devised by the left-leaning British National Economic Foundation, as a means for recovery after the 2008 economic collapse.)

And after a hugely ambitious socialist platform along these lines was unveiled as Labour’s official program for government in the beginning of the campaign for the election of 2017, many of the same moderate leftists who now pooh-pooh the GND in the U.S. predicted electoral catastrophe in the U.K. Like the Green New Deal, Labour’s proposals were to be funded by simply borrowing or printing money — what Tories mockingly called a “magic money tree.” (Whenever I read the phrase MMT, Modern Monetary Theory, Magic Money Tree seems like a better translation). Labour’s anti-American foreign policy was also seen as an electoral poison pill.

But all these familiar critiques did not win the day. Once Labour’s full, staggeringly bold proposals were unveiled, support for the party soared. Labour climbed a full 20 points in the six weeks of the 2017 campaign, robbing the Tories of a majority in the Parliament. They came very close to becoming the most radical government — domestically but especially in foreign policy — in modern British history.

So it seems to me there is a massive opportunity for the left now across the Western world. Look at how popular a 70 percent top rate is … in America! The left is correct to sense a huge opportunity and they are right, I think, to be bold. But, in the context of the current left and the recent transformation of its intellectual roots, there is also a massive risk to this. I wrote about Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour last year in these pages, and that, under his leadership, “it turned out to be difficult to propel a new movement of left radicalism without simultaneously tapping into a vein of left extremism,” and that seems to me to be precisely the challenge in the U.S. as well. The economic case for rebalancing capitalism is more persuasive than at any moment in my lifetime, as is the profound challenge of tackling our climate catastrophe.

But the full package from the contemporary radicalized left in both the U.K. and U.S. brings with it far more troubling ideas. Hostility to the policies of the state of Israel — a perfectly legitimate position — morphs swiftly into ugly anti-Semitic tropes. A passion for social justice curdles into attacks on free speech or degenerates into broad denunciations of “whiteness.” Postmodern critical gender theory denies any meaningful natural differences between men and women, and casts an entire sex as inherently problematic. Social-media frenzies carelessly destroy the lives and careers of individuals who transgress orthodoxies. Important work combating sexual harassment and abuse is hurt by reckless accusations and McCarthyite campaigns. Concern about mass immigration is dismissed as nothing but racism and xenophobia. And then there are the gaffes — when Corbyn, for example, calls Hamas and Hezbollah his “friends,” or when the very senior Labour leader, John McDonnell, calls Winston Churchill a “villain” as he did last week. And so Labour, after so much promise and success, has not been able to get any sustainable polling lead over the most shambolic Tory government in memory.

Now look at Omar. She didn’t just push back on AIPAC’s distortion of American foreign policy, she reiterated a classic anti-Semitic trope that American Jews buy influence, period. She didn’t just confront Elliott Abrams, she refused to let him answer anything but loaded “yes” or “no” responses. And last week, for good measure, she demanded an investigation into the decision by USA Powerlifting to ban transgender women from competing in women’s powerlifting contests, because of the unfair advantage that developing a male body for most of your life will give you in lifting weights. The organization instituted the ban after a young trans woman, JayCee Cooper, smashed the state record for women’s bench press in Minnesota, beating her nearest female rival by a mile, only a year after joining the sport.

If the Democrats want to fight the next election on the need for a radical rebalancing of the economy in favor of the middle and working class, for massive investment in new green technology, for higher taxes on the superrich, and for health-care security for all Americans, they can win. If they conflate those goals with extremist rhetoric about abolishing everyone’s current health insurance, and starting from scratch, as the Green New Deal advises, not so much. If they insist that men and women are indistinguishable, that girls can have penises and boys can have periods, as transgender ideology now demands, they’ll seem nuts to most fair-minded people.

If they echo the anti-Semitism of the far right, they’ll deserve obloquy. If left ideology seems to be overruling practical good sense — like ruling out nuclear power as an option for tackling the climate crisis in the Green New Deal, they’ll seem unserious purists. If they insist on calling our multicultural and multiracial democracy a manifestation of “white supremacy,” they will empower real white supremacists. If they call a border wall an “immorality” and refuse to fund a way to detain and humanely house the huge surge of migrant families and children now overwhelming the southern border (up 290 percent over the same period in 2018, with a record 1,800 apprehensions on Monday of this week alone!), they will rightly be called in favor of open borders.

Are they really capable of fucking this up once again? The answer that is emerging in the first months of the new Democratic House is: of course they can.

An Emotional Catastrophe

I’d never really associated climate change with the idea of trauma until I stumbled across this intriguing paper by Zhiwa Woodbury last week, and it strikes me as insightful. We’re used to seeing the challenge of marshaling political support for radical climate measures as a struggle against ignorance, denial, greed, or the inability of human beings to confront an abstract threat in the future that doesn’t overwhelm them now. And I’m not saying that these things don’t factor in. But we may be underestimating what the constant drumbeat of news about the accelerating sixth great extinction has been doing to us psychologically.

For my own part, I’m haunted all the time by the knowledge of what my lifetime will have witnessed. Humans are committing countless species to death; we are destroying the life of our oceans and skies; we are changing the planet’s ecosystem more quickly than at any time since the asteroids wiped out the dinosaurs. From the perspective of life itself, we are conducting a holocaust of the natural world. How is the knowledge of this not traumatizing?

A new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research notes, according to the BBC, that “since 1950, the number of floods across the world has increased by 15 times, extreme temperature events by 20 times, and wildfires seven-fold.” Last week, research emerged showing that the insect biomass is declining by 2.5 percent a year, which means that we may wipe out the entire insect population within a century — and lose a quarter of it in the next ten years. This amounts to what Jill Kieldash describes as the “actual structural and functional collapse of the natural systems which have supported life on Earth for the last 400 million years.”

This is what Steven Pinker calls progress! And in the face of this literally existential threat to life itself, we have elected a president who denies anything is happening at all, and is, in fact, determined to accelerate the collapse. I don’t know how this paradigm affects you every day, but it is for me the gutting context for everything, a growing nausea laced with guilt and shame. In a century, we will have destroyed this Earth as we have known it — in absolutely full awareness of what we are doing. It’s the greatest crime humanity has ever committed. It distresses and enrages me particularly that one core bloc egging on this devastation are Evangelical Christians, utterly indifferent to God’s creation, indeed, actively hostile to it. How, I wonder, can they be this way?

One answer could be that they are behaving in a classic way when a catastrophe strikes: They’re traumatized by this knowledge, and they cope with this trauma by a classic form of disassociation. In fact, we are all living through this collective trauma. Money quote from Woodbury:

There are certain things in life that we cannot ‘unsee,’ and Climate Trauma indelibly stamps our consciousness in that way, fundamentally altering the way we see the world and our place in it. Once we become aware of its true scope, depth, and accelerating pace, we then begin to view everything else through the traumatic lens of the climate crisis — from weather anomalies to political crises and polarized dysfunction, from the threat (and memory) of nuclear war to the absence of songbirds and honey bees on our nature walks, from apocalyptic developments in the Middle East to the latest superhero movie. How could anyone with a reasonably realistic, educated worldview not be haunted by the perpetual specter of Climate Trauma when considering fundamental life and identity choices? Decisions like whether to bring children into the world, what career path to follow, or when and where to settle and raise a family suddenly become weighed down by the fate of the world.

Paul Schrader’s extraordinary film First Reformed is the only movie I’ve seen that truly reflects the depth of this collective trauma at this moment in history. I am not surprised by declining birth rates in the West. Having a child in today’s era means initiating another human being into the end of the world as we have known it. It is to bring new life into a planet saturated with the mass death of all life forms. I find my own witnessing of the collapse of liberal democratic values in the West inseparable from the mass extinction of life on Earth our civilization has wrought — and the double depression this creates makes me want to escape. I don’t know where exactly.

Collective trauma — think of the impact of 9/11 on our psyches — is usually a response to a single terrible event, the indelible memories it imprints, and the challenge of coping with post-traumatic stress. But this collective trauma is never-ending. It’s a 9/11 all the time. Woodbury notes the similarity between our knowledge of future planetary collapse and a diagnosis of a terminal disease: “You may put it out of your mind for spells, but the grief associated with prospective loss comes at you in waves. Similarly, the ‘remembrance’ of Climate Trauma is like inhabiting an inhospitable, even dystopian world. There can no longer be any question that life as we know it is now ending.”

The challenge is to resist disassociation — which is “the human capacity to mentally escape an insufferable reality.” We are disassociating from America in our current dystopian politics. But we are also, more profoundly, disassociating ourselves from our deepest ecological reality: that we are killing what created us. And we cannot seem to stop.

Remembering a Reasonable Man

It’s not easy to find any heroes in Washington these days, so allow me to eulogize one. Walter Jones was a longtime Republican congressman from North Carolina, who died earlier this week at his home in Farmville, after breaking a hip. A convert to Catholicism at the age of 31, he became famous for a while for somewhat intemperate support for the Iraq War. Yes, he was one of the congressmen who renamed French fries “Freedom Fries” in the congressional cafeteria — arguably a comic low point in that furious debate.

But he also had a conscience and an independent streak, and when it became clear that the Iraq War had been based on phony intelligence, he actually changed his mind. More than that: He took moral responsibility for his vote for the war, and rethought a great deal of his previous views. Ashamed of what he had done — and the lives lost because of the war — he went on to write 12,000 letters to family members of service members killed. “In terms of his skepticism of authority and power in Washington, I think part of his wiring changed,” Congressman Mark Sanford, told the Washington Post. “He started looking at leadership’s claims with a skeptical eye, and that’s led to the independence you now see on a regular basis.”

More to the point, he tirelessly fought to bring back war-making powers to the Senate, where they belong. He took on his own party leadership in demanding votes before military adventures. In 2016, he railed against the GOP leadership for their foreign policy interventionism in the Middle East, especially the appalling war in Yemen: “[Paul Ryan] is denying members of Congress their constitutional duty, that we are sworn to uphold the Constitution, and one of those duties is to vote whether we send our young men and women to die or not.” In some ways, his greatest victory came just days after he died. Last Wednesday, the House actually reasserted its war-making powers in the case of Yemen, voting 248–177 to defy the president, a critical moment in restoring some measure of accountability in the way this country now wages war.

He was that very rare creature: a true Republican fiscal conservative. Because of this, he voted against the Trump tax cut, which is even now adding exponentially to $22 trillion in debt. Pressured by Tom DeLay to vote for some of the appropriations bills that bankrupted the country under George W. Bush, because “these are Republican bills now,” as DeLay explained, Jones replied, “Yes, Tom, but you’re spending more than the Democrats did.” For being this kind of constitutional and fiscal conservative, Jones was denied any significant committee roles during his 12 consecutive terms in the Congress as a Republican.

Of course a man of this character was a dogged defender of his own constituents, especially those in the military subjected to unfairness or injustice of any kind. (He was once rated the kindest man in Congress.) As one eulogist put it, “Didn’t get a government benefit you deserved? ‘Walter B’ was on it. Treated unfairly by a federal agency? ‘Walter B’ would make calls. I know — I worked at Headquarters Marine Corps for years, took some of those calls, and I knew that once Congressman Jones saw a problem, he would personally follow it until it was settled.” This was a Republican who took on Devin Nunes’s obstruction of the investigation into the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russian intelligence, and who voted against Obamacare repeal.

This didn’t make him a liberal. It made him a conservative. And he proved that to be a conservative these days — a humane, decent, honest, principled conservative — you really have no place in the Republican Party. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: New Hope and New Danger on the Left