After a couple of Twitter skirmishes tonight about Alexander Cockburn and his apologetics for the Soviet Union—though see this reconsideration from Cockburn (I’m told there are others in The Golden Age is Within Us; since we’re moving, my copy is now boxed up somewhere in Brooklyn, so I can’t check it out)—I come back to my age-old conundrum about the American liberal.
Why is he or she willing to make his or her peace with the American state—despite all its crimes (crimes acknowledged by liberals!)—yet never willing to make his or her peace with critics like Cockburn, whose only “crime,” if you can call it that, was to apologize for the Soviet Union long past its sell by date? Why so much room at the inn for Truman, JFK, or LBJ—all men with real blood on their hands—while people like Cockburn and Chomsky are denied entry?
I realize this is one of those questions that cuts to the bone of 20th (and apparently 21st!) century politics, and obviously I’m not a completely disinterested party. But I do come to it out of a genuine curiosity—and confusion.
I asked a version of it at the height of the Iraq War. It got published in The Nation in 2005, but I actually first posed on the eve of the war in a draft of an article that never got published.
Why did certain liberals who opposed the war in Iraq refuse to march against it? The reason they gave was that left-wing groups like ANSWER, which helped organize the antiwar rallies, failed to denounce Saddam’s regime. Yet many of those who could not abide an alliance with ANSWER endorsed the war in Afghanistan–even though it was waged by a government that recently invaded three Caribbean countries, funded dirty wars in Latin America and backed the government of Guatemala, the only regime in the Western Hemisphere condemned by a UN-sponsored truth commission for committing acts of genocide. Politics, of course, often entails an unhappy choice of associations. But if the deeds of the US government need not stop liberals from supporting the war in Afghanistan, why should the words–words, mind you, not deeds–of leftists deprive the antiwar movement of these very same liberals’ support?
I’ve never gotten an answer.
Update (July 24, 10:30 am)
Eric Rauchway has a thoughtful response to this post. I don’t think he quite gets my point—perhaps because I wasn’t as clear as I could have been—but I’m going to chew on what he says.