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Hillary Clinton. (photo: Getty Images)
Hillary Clinton. (photo: Getty Images)

Don't Let Hillary Housebreak the New New Left

By Steve Weissman, Reader Supported News

12 October 13


eter Beinart might be one of smarter guys on the block. He is certainly one of the most interesting. And with his recent touting of a new New Left as the coming wave in American politics, he has become a most beguiling Pied Piper.

Still in his twenties when he worked as editor of The New Republic, Beinart cheered on liberal interventionists in their enthusiastic support for George W. Bush's War in Iraq. He came in time to see the war as "a tragic mistake," and went into competition with the Bushies and neocons with his first book, "The Good Fight: Why Liberals – and Only Liberals – Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again." He next promoted a return to "liberal Zionism," berating the American Jewish establishment for its uncritical support of Bibi Netanyahu and the rightward turn in Israeli politics.

No surprise, then, he is now talking up a new generation of voters who do not see "liberal" as a dirty word, believing in the tradition of FDR "that government should intervene in society to solve problems that individuals cannot solve alone." These voters are currently backing improbable politicians like New York's populist mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, and Beinart is now challenging Hillary Clinton to move to the left and ride the new wave to power. Unspoken but obvious, this might work on domestic policy, but Hillary, a humanitarian hawk abroad, would inevitably run up against the new New Left's deep-seated and altogether healthy anti-interventionist impulses.

All of which makes Beinart a fascinating fellow, but not someone to follow. Like neocons and the National Security Agency (NSA), he hypes terrorism as a much greater threat than it is, killing far fewer people than do Washington's efforts to combat it. Liberal Zionism lost most of its appeal before he was born. And while we very much need government to solve social and economic problems, we should clearly see the limitations of both the New Deal and European Social Democracy. He does not, nor do many progressives.

But Beinart's biggest problem is his unquenchable zeal for a muscular, hyper-activist foreign policy, one with all the multilateral trappings of U.N. resolutions and NATO-led coalitions, but still decidedly neo-colonial and inescapably in the service of Big Oil and the merchants of death. He cannot get over his adolescent urge for Washington to intervene, only to help others, of course, and to fight every totalitarian scourge he sees on the horizon.

"Antitotalitarianism should sit at the heart of the liberal project," he wrote in "The Good Fight." "If today's liberals cannot rouse as much passion for fighting a movement that flings acid at unveiled women as they do for taking back the Senate in 2006, they have strayed far from liberalism's best traditions."

We should all share Beinart's passion to stop acid-throwing Islamists, as Hillary most certainly does. But we should firmly reject, as she most certainly does not, any idea that the United States with all its imperial baggage can be the agency to counter the menace of Islamist jihadis. Would that Washington could! But after a Cold War that Beinart's liberal heroes unflinchingly supported, after a war in Vietnam they promoted, and after wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that he and his liberal interventionists loudly applauded, is it not time that we all take a deep breath and refuse to let our government repeat the same tragic mistake over and over again? Is it not time to stop making truly terrible situations infinitely worse?

Beinart's heroes epitomize the original sin. They include most of the old stalwarts – former vice-president Hubert Humphrey, labor leaders Walter Reuther and Walter Dubinsky, civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, my generation's own Shachtmanite bête noir Tom Kahn, and others who made central to their political faith a robust opposition to Communism abroad and a steadfast refusal to cooperate with Communists at home. This "antitotalitarian liberalism," as Beinart notes, became "the dominant ideology in American public life." It also bought a degree of protection from the right in seeking to expand New Deal reforms, defending what remained of our civil liberties, and pursuing civil rights for American blacks.

But, as Beinart barely begins to grasp, Cold War liberals incurred a huge price that we all have to keep paying. They helped create the CIA, the garrison state, and the permanent war economy with its military-industrial complex. Through groups like the CIA's American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), which Beinart cites as one of Reuther's great contributions, they helped organize anti-communist coups all over the globe. Under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, they helped spread new, more efficient forms of torture. They fed the rightwing red-baiting they condemned. And, in the cruelest cut of all, they ended up undermining the labor unions and civil rights struggles they sincerely meant to support.

The original New Left understood most of this 50 years ago, which is why many of us refused to take sides in their Cold War and why we went out of our way not to exclude Communists or anyone else from our free speech, civil rights, and anti-war struggles. Beinart still wants to pick a fight over our anti-anti-communism, and has absolutely no clue how much it contributed to whatever success we had.

Today, with the new New Left, we have a chance to do far better, but not if we embrace Beinart's liberal mythology and unending foreign intervention. Nor should we accept Ron Paul's old-fashioned isolationism or any knee-jerk reaction to side uncritically with every Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and Hussan Rouhani who comes along. With or without Hillary Clinton, but preferably without, the way forward requires less dogmatic international cooperation, as we might finally be seeing in Syria and Iran. We should also learn the real lesson of the Cold War, which Beinart completely misses. Both sides shared the blame for an Orwellian conflict that served selfish and systemic interests, and both sides played their part in bringing us to the very brink of nuclear annihilation.

A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, "Big Money: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How To Break Their Hold."

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