I still consider myself a liberal. I am pro-choice, pro-union (except when it comes to grad student nonworkers), pro-gay marriage. I support progressive taxation and the estate tax, I am an environmentalist and an advocate of government funding of elections on the national, state and local levels. I even believe in single-payer (government-funded) health care. Political pollsters would consider me a pretty left-wing liberal. Yet at Yale, I am at best a centrist, but most identify me as a conservative. How is this possible?
I am considered a right-winger at Yale primarily because I was an ardent supporter of war in Iraq and because I defend the right of Israel to defend itself against annihilation. Clearly, a college campus is not an accurate representation of the political spectrum, yet this divide on campus amongst liberals is part of a national political phenomenon. In the spring 2002 issue of the left Dissent magazine, editor Michael Walzer wrote what has become one of the most important essays since Sept. 11, titled, “Can there be a decent left?” In it, he comments on the self-loathing and alienation that many leftists feel in the presence of patriotism.
He tells his fellow leftists, “We certainly need something better than the rag-tag Marxism with which so much of the left operates today — whose chief effect is to turn world politics into a cheap melodrama.” It took a lot of courage for someone like Walzer to write what he did, especially in a magazine like Dissent. Unfortunately, many on the left have yet to heed his advice. But Walzer never went so far as to bestow explicitly this type of liberalism with the appellation he clearly infers: that is, the “indecent left.”
The fundamental difference between the decent and indecent left is their contrasting views of American power. The indecent left views American military might through the lens of Vietnam and therefore regards our armed forces as the greatest threat to world peace. Walzer wrote, “The leftist critique, from the Vietnam years forward — has been stupid, overwrought, grossly inaccurate. It is the product of what Philip Roth, in his novel ‘I Married a Communist,’ aptly described as ‘the combination of embitterment and not thinking.'”
The indecent believes the U.S. military is a brutish power which merely serves to enact the imperialist designs of our corporate-controlled government. Decent liberals are the opposite; they understand the American military has been and continues to be the greatest force for good in the world. We accept that it has made mistakes in the past, yet we are much more optimistic than the far-left isolationists because we hope to harness the military for positive goals, while they would rather just eliminate it all together.
While the indecent left stresses diplomacy to the point of endangering our national security and the security of millions of others, the decent left knows that it has been American bombs and bullets, not words, which have saved the world from tyranny three times in the last century. I was almost moved to tears two weeks ago at the scenes of a liberated Baghdad; there have been few moments in my life when I have felt prouder to be an American. The indecent left’s response to the liberation of 22 million formerly enslaved Iraqi people was predictable, yet still appalling. Rather than see my fellow liberals pleased with the fact that we had freed an entire people from the iron fist of a maniacal despot, they were bitter and cynically rationalizing. Simply put, decent liberals want the world to look more like America (for our own safety). We know that peoples in oppressive regimes largely agree with us, and we are earnest in our attempts to go about making this happen.
Another source of disappointment has been academia. Polls have shown that students are no longer as liberal as their professors, especially on matters of foreign policy. With regard to the war, the academic left has largely chosen to employ emotional rhetoric as opposed to intellectual reasoning to defend their beliefs from student critics. While worse at other schools like Columbia, the statements of some Yale professors has been quite disturbing over this past academic year. Two weeks ago, I co-wrote a column for a Web site regarding an anti-war “teach-in.” Simply for exposing the conspiratorial statements of these academics, a professor labeled my co-author and me as “neo-Stalinist” and accused us of serving some mysterious “tribal agenda,” (which of the 12 tribes he was referring to, only he can say). Yet in true Stalinist fashion, he then called upon the Yale College Students for Democracy to “clean [its] house,” and purge my co-author and me from their ranks.
This may come as a shock to liberal students at Yale, but in my experiences over the past year I have generally found my conservative peers to be the most intelligent, thought-provoking and open minded students on campus. The left at Yale would rather scream and yell about perceived injustices on the street than engage in intellectual discussion about pertinent issues. I suggest that liberal students attend a Conservative Party or Party of the Right debate at least once in their time here, and marvel at the intellectualism that is possible for students to achieve when discussing current events.
So to my liberal readers, I am sorry if I have appeared “conservative” in these pages over the past months. Don’t worry, I am still a registered Democrat (from Massachusetts no less) and plan to be one until the day I die. My writing is rather the mark of an outraged liberal — a liberal ashamed of what much of the left has become in America. I just hope you will leave Noam Chomsky, Robert Fisk, and Congresswoman Barbara Lee in the dustbin and join me in the exciting realm of the decent left. Trust me, it’s not that scary.
James Kirchick is a freshman in Pierson College. His column appears regularly on alternate Wednesdays.