Copyright The Nation
[from the February 27, 2006 issue]
Translated from the original French by Charlotte Mandell.
Nothing made a more lasting impression during my journey through America than the semi-comatose state in which I found the American left.
I know, of course, that the term “left” does not have the same meaning and ramifications here that it does in France.
And I cannot count how many times I was told there has never been an authentic “left” in the United States, in the European sense.
But at the end of the day, my progressive friends, you may coin ideas in whichever way you like. The fact is: You do have a right. This right, in large part thanks to its neoconservative battalion, has brought about an ideological transformation that is both substantial and striking.
And the fact is that nothing remotely like it has taken shape on the other side–to the contrary, through the looking glass of the American “left” lies a desert of sorts, a deafening silence, a cosmic ideological void that, for a reader of Whitman or Thoreau, is thoroughly enigmatic. The 60-year-old “young” Democrats who have desperately clung to the old formulas of the Kennedy era; the folks of MoveOn.org who have been so great at enlisting people in the electoral lists, at protesting against the war in Iraq and, finally, at helping to revitalize politics but whom I heard in Berkeley, like Puritans of a new sort, treating the lapses of a libertine President as quasi-equivalent to the neo-McCarthyism of his fiercest political rivals; the anti-Republican strategists confessing they had never set foot in one of those neo-evangelical mega-churches that are the ultimate (and most Machiavellian) laboratories of the “enemy,” staring in disbelief when I say I’ve spent quite some time exploring them; ex-candidate Kerry, whom I met in Washington a few weeks after his defeat, haggard, ghostly, faintly whispering in my ear: “If you hear anything about those 50,000 votes in Ohio, let me know”; the supporters of Senator Hillary Clinton who, when I questioned them on how exactly they planned to wage the battle of ideas, casually replied they had to win the battle of money first, and who, when I persisted in asking what the money was meant for, what projects it would fuel, responded like fundraising automatons gone mad: “to raise more money”; and then, perhaps more than anything else, when it comes to the lifeblood of the left, the writers and artists, the men and women who fashion public opinion, the intellectuals–I found a curious lifelessness, a peculiar streak of timidity or irritability, when confronted with so many seething issues that in principle ought to keep them as firmly mobilized as the Iraq War or the so-called “American Empire” (the denunciation of which is, sadly, all that remains when they have nothing left to say).
For an outside observer it is passing strange, for instance, that a number of progressives needed, by their own admission, to wait for Hurricane Katrina before they got indignant about, or even learned about, the sheer scale of the outrageous poverty blighting American cities.
For a European intellectual used to the battlefield of ideas, it is simply incomprehensible that more voices weren’t raised long ago, in the name of no less than the force of “the Enlightenment,” to denounce the ridiculous fraud of the anti-Darwinian supporters of “intelligent design.”
And what about the death penalty? How can it be that there isn’t yet, within the political parties, especially the Democratic Party–which everyone knows will never budge on the question without decisive internal pressure–a trend of opinion calling for the abolition of this civilized barbarity?
And GuantÂ·namo? And Abu Ghraib? And the special prisons in Central Europe, those areas where the rule of law no longer applies? I know, of course, that the press has denounced them. I know you have journalists who, in a matter of days, accomplished what our French press still hasn’t finished forty years after our Algerian War. But since when does the press excuse citizens from their political duties? Why haven’t we heard from more intellectuals like Susan Sontag–or even Gore Vidal and Tony Kushner (with whom I disagree on most other grounds) on this vexed and vital issue? And what should we make of that handful of individuals who, after September 11, launched the debate about the circumstances in which torture might suddenly be justified?
And I’m not even talking about Bush. I won’t even mention Bush’s gross lies about the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, except for the sake of assembling the conclusive evidence. I know, of course, that you denounce him–but mechanically, I am almost tempted to say ritualistically. And yet the United States nearly impeached Nixon because he had spied on his enemies and lied. They impeached Clinton for a venial lie about inappropriate conduct. How is it, then, that it took so long to draw a parallel between those lies and a lie about which the least you can say is that its consequences were anything but venial? How is it that so few “public intellectuals” have been found, within the confines of this formidable, impetuous American democracy, who can bring up the idea of impeaching George Bush for lying?
Some will retort that the “public intellectual” is a European specialty, that we shouldn’t blame Americans for their infidelity to a tradition that is not their own. What do such killjoys make of the Norman Mailer of the 1960s? Of the Arthur Miller of The Crucible? Or of that golden age of civil rights awareness, when great writers enunciated what was right and good and true?
Others will object that the massive, resounding mobilization of civil society is not an American custom. All you need to do to convince yourself of the untruth of this is remember the 1960s and the movement for civil rights, then for the rights of minorities in general, which were the honor of the country and did not stem, let it be emphasized, from any of the major political parties.
Still others will wax ironic about the disease of writing up petitions, a French specialty, warded off by American pragmatism. Here the objection is more serious; and I know the fatuity that can exist in the mania for nonstop political engagement in the name of myriad causes–but aren’t you afflicted, my American friends, with the radically opposite sickness? Hasn’t the ethics of sobriety won once too often, with you, over the ethics of conviction? And how could one not yearn for a petition that would address our common nausea when faced with the spectacle of a diabetic, blind, nearly deaf old man, pushed in his wheelchair to the San Quentin execution chamber in California?
I might be mistaken, but it seems to me that a large part of the country is waiting for this. Everywhere, in the innermost reaches of America, you can meet men and women who hope for great voices capable of echoing their impatience in a momentous way. If I were an American writer, I would try to ponder the lessons of the totalitarian century and those of democracy, Tocqueville-style, all at once, in the same breath, and with the same rigor.