When there’s nothing left to say, self-parody is the way

I’m just, barely, old enough to remember the anti-war Leftists of
the 1960s and 1970s. I disagreed with them over Vietnam then, and
I disagree with the anti-war Left’s agitation against a war on Iraq
today. But as I read what comes out of minds of people like Robert
Fisk and Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag these days, I wonder if I’m
getting old and allowing a golden haze to cloud my recollection of
past decades. Because I find myself feeling almost nostalgic for
the anti-Vietnam-war Left.

Yes, yes, I still think “Hanoi Jane” and her crowd were basically
wrong. Wrong about the consequences of a North Vietnamese victory
(Communists turn out to be murderously repressive — what a shock!);
wrong about the motives and interests of the U.S.; wrong about almost
everything except the level of incompetence, buffoonery, and myopia
afflicting the generals and politicians running that war.

But there was one important difference. The anti-Vietnam-war Left
may have been deluded and prone to masturbating in front of Che
Guevara posters…but if you sifted through enough of their ranting
you could detect the outlines of a principled case, or several
principled cases. There was one argument on which they persuaded me;
though I was not of draftable age, I found I agreed with them that the
military draft was an intolerable form of slavery years before I
encountered Robert Heinlein’s pithy objurgation that “A nation that
cannot find enough volunteers to defend itself will not survive
— and does not deserve to.”

But try as I might, I can’t detect a principled case anywhere in today’s
anti-war Left. Which is all the more curious since I think they
could be making one. Several, in fact: starting with the argument
that we should abandon the path of war not even because of what it does
to our enemies but because of what it does to ourselves. At every
level from the personal to the political, warfare is a brutalizing
experience that erodes our freedoms and empowers the nastiest elements
of human psyches and societies.

There are principled responses to that case, but that particular
argument is not my point. My point is that today’s anti-war
rhetoric, as exemplified by reports on a planned September 11
“Teach-In and Panel regarding Oppression” at UCLA, never seems
to even confront the question of whether war against Afghanistan and Iraq
is justified by the Islamist threat. Instead, the topic is “U.S. Law
and Policy Against Immigrants of Color”, as if there is any kind of
equivalence between the U.S.’s border policies and the catastrophic
mass murder of 2,500 people.

There is a curious kind of evasiveness at work here. We can see it
at work in the arid deconstructionism of Susan Sontag’s NYT op-ed, Real
Battles and Empty Metaphors
. Even the title announces that she’s
going to lucubrate about the relationship between language and
reality, not confront reality itself. A similar denial is evident
it the rhetoric of Noam Chomsky; prodded for commentary on the war,
he recites a litany of past American wrongdoing as if that somehow
banishes the question of how soon Saddam Hussein will have nuclear
weapons and what he will do with them when he gets them.

Maybe I’m getting senile, but it seems to me that the Left of my
teens was in better contact with reality than today’s crew. There
really was a military-industrial complex and the desire for war
profits probably did drive some of the political support for the
Vietnam war. The military-industrial complex is still with us today,
but the Left seems to have forgotten even the little it once knew
about political economics and isn’t even bothering to raise that
issue. Perhaps this amnesia is a post-traumatic effect of watching
Marx take a header into the dustbin of history; we’ve come to strange
days indeed when I have to conclude that my libertarian self could
easily write a better Marxist critique of Dubya’s war propaganda than
anyone on the Left has yet issued in public.

Instead, what we’re seeing is a rhetoric that is half a retreat
into language-chopping and half an expression of contempt for the
U.S. — contempt so out of balance that it’s doomed to be tuned out by
anyone less far to the left than the unlamented former Congresswoman
Cynthia McKinney.

When did the Left descend into such empty self-parody? And why?

Watching “real existing socialism” self-destruct must have been
part of it. I speculated on the psychological effects of that
political collapse in a previous essay Socialists
to the Stars
, about Scottish SF writers Ken McLeod and Iain Banks.
But something weirder and more diffuse happened to the Left on
this side of the pond, and I’m not sure what it was.

Some days I wonder if Greg Egan, the reclusive West Australian
author who has produced some of the best hard SF of the last decade,
may not have called it right in the following passage from his novel
“Teranesia”:

“Feminism was working, and the civil rights movement was working, and
all the other social justice movements were getting more and more
support. So, in the 1980s, the CIA [...] hired some really clever
linguists to invent a secret weapon; an incredibly complicated way of
talking about politics that didn’t actually make any sense, but which
spread through all the universities in the world, because it sounded
so impressive. And at first, the people who talked like this just
hitched their wagon to the social justice movements, and everyone else
let them come along for the ride, because they seemed harmless. But
then they climbed on board the peace train and threw out the driver.”

“So instead of going to the people in power and saying, `How about
upholding the universal principles you claim to believe in?’ the
people in the social justice movements ended up saying things like `My
truth narrative is in conflict with your truth marrative!’. And the
people in power replied `Woe is me! You’ve thrown me into the briar
patch!’ And everyone else said `Who are these idiots? Why should we
trust them when they can’t even speak properly?’ And the CIA was
happy. And the people in power were happy. And the secret weapon
lived on in the universities for years and years, because everyone
who’d played a part in the conspiracy was too embarrassed to admit
what they’d done,”

Egan’s account is implausible only because it seems unlikely that
the CIA is quite that subtle. But he’s right in pointing out that the
rise of the language of postmodernism — the sterile, involuted,
pseudo-profundity famously skewered by the Sokal Hoax
— seems to be an important correlate of the decline of the
American Left.

Self-parody is where you end up when you have nothing left to say.
And when all you can talk about is `discourse’ that’s a damn short road,

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