The phrase “through the looking glass” is getting used so often when anyone talks about the Bush administration that you have to wonder if poor Alice won’t be up for a State Department job as soon as she manages to pop out of that rabbit hole. But it’s not just Washington where odd reversals are commonplace. The new-found support the nation’s political Left has for what’s sometimes called “our American way of life” is pretty curious, too.
That’s right, the American Left – tree-hugging, Volvo-driving, ACLU-supporting, sushi-eating atheists, academics and quasi-Marxists – has become as patriotic as, well, as the America-first crowd with its flag-waving, Sousa-humming love of apple pie, Sunday school and football. The best example is the way in which the men and women serving in Iraq are being treated. A Yale-educated cartoonist who began his career lampooning the Vietnam War has become one of the most eloquent chroniclers of the Iraq war. Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury – from the injury suffered by B.D. to its annual roll-call of the dead on Memorial Day – is a regular and heartfelt tribute to national service.
Certainly some of this is due to the all-volunteer army; the U.S. armed forces work on an economic draft – many of those who serve are those who needed the extra money from reserve duty – so the sacrifice is even more painful for everyone to witness. Certainly, we’ve come a long way since Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched. Take a look at a now-quaint essay, “Capture the Flag”, that Democratic political consultant Dan Carol published just after the funeral of President Ronald Reagan. Among its recommendations: Democrats should demonstrate their love of country by flying the stars and stripes. “This is a patriotic country and it’s part of the game and we need to fight for our flag when right wingers are trying to hijack it for their purposes,” Carol wrote.
Today, Carol’s sentiments sound dated, don’t they? With a few exceptions – okay, Noam Chomsky and his last dinner party – the American Left is increasingly patriotic; love of country isn’t something no one talks about anymore. The best example of this shift is highlighted in Jonathan Feedland’s essay in The New York Review of Books assessing three recent books, all critical of U.S. foreign policy. Freedland cites Chalmers Johnson in particular:
Johnson enters this discussion from an angle different from that of Noam Chomsky and the traditional anti-imperialist left… his is a patriot’s passion: his motive is to save the American republic he loves. While Chomsky argues that American guilt can be traced back to the Constitution – he disapprovingly quotes James Madison’s insistence that the new Republic should “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority”…Johnson reveres that document and the careful balance of powers it constructed.
There you have it: A Lefty – a Berkeley-educated Lefty – cast as a Constitutional fundamentalist. How’d this happen?
Well, we’re coming to the end of empire – which is the real point of Freelander’s essay – and while many on the Left are perfectly happy to keep decrying the U.S.’ abuse of its economic and militarily superpowers, they also seem to be getting a sense of just how threatened that status has become. The quiet realization that economic status lost on the world stage can not be easily recouped seems to be motivating some interesting new displays of patriotism.
In Freedlander’s mind, the Bush Administration’s sheer incompetence in international affairs has encouraged those who would normally be staunch supporters of the administration to join with the Left. But it may well be that the reverse course is one to watch: Perhaps it’s the Left that’s joining with the Right in a tacit acknowlegement that what makes this country great is, in fact, its economic power, which supports pretty much everything else.
That acknowlegement, tacit or open, is going to create a lot of intellectual discomfort. If the Left’s new-found patriotism is motivated, as Freeland suggests, by the hope that the U.S. will finally abandon its long-standing imperialist policy and step down from its exploitation of other countries, economically and militarily, they may get their wish sooner than they’d like. And the economic consequences of that reduction aren’t all that attractive to contemplate because you can’t call the tune – as a Liberal or a Conservative, a human rights activist or a real politik advocate – if you can’t pay the piper.
The questions aren’t going to be easy, either. That same imperialism – exercised mostly by U.S.-owned multinational corporations – has all of us living in a style, compared to the rest of the world, to which we’ve become fabulously accustomed. It provides the U.S. with cheap labor and lots of lovely goods. It’s made us – all of us – rich. But economic power is starting to shift, mostly to Asia. Why else are the Chinese able to take a $3 billion stake in a private equity firm? How do you think a corporation based in Dubai was able to take over management of U.S. ports? And why do you think Indian billionaires are buying up European and American companies the way Americans used to snap up trinkets in Mexican flea markets?
That no one really notices these shifts – except maybe CNN’s Lou Dobbs who seems intent on blaming the nation’s problems on illegal immigration and nothing more – is itself an interesting state. An understanding of the real economic forces that drive this most capitalistic of nations and have made it prosper has always been something that politicians in both parties have firmly grasped; that’s why, for all the rhetoric, real socialism has never caught on here. That’s doesn’t seem to be the case any longer and that absence doesn’t bode well, regardless of your political leanings. But it’s also hard to escape the suspicion that most of the Left – not just the hard left but the soft Democratic party center – want to keep these issues at bay because they have no real answers.
As for the Republicans, it’s tempting to think that they’re saber-rattling as compensation: They realize the U.S.’s international economic dominance is increasingly fragile so they’re cowing everyone with noise and bluster. But in our friend Alice’s world, there’s a different kind of logic we could apply, one as maddening as that of the Red Queen. Are they screwing up on purpose to demonstrate that this is how it’s going to be whenever America appears on the world stage? Are they just preparing Americans for a day when whatever is said by this country’s leaders won’t matter a whit to the Chinese, French, Asians or Saudis because our power to hold economic sway is reduced? With its continually failing foreign policy, is George Bush’s White House telegraphing a simple message: We’re going to hell in a hand basket and there’s not a whole lot we can do about it?