To set the historical record straight, it is necessary from time to time to point out that the majority of “Left Wing Intellectuals” did not spend the Cold War criticizing communist governments for oppressing their people, but rather attacking any attempt by the U.S. government or conservatives to oppose communism. In their eyes, Ronald Reagan was an “insane imperialist warmonger” for calling the Soviet Union an Evil Empire and attempting to fight communism throughout the world.
So in the High Church of the American Left, praising America’s fight against communism was the ultimate sin, right up there with opposing global warming. Even so, some may find it surprising just how viciously that High Church’s uncrowned Pope, Noam Chomsky, attacked Vaclav Havel for the sin of praising America as a “defender of freedom.”
Sayeth Pope Chomsky to his leftwing pal Alexander Cockburn:
As a good and loyal friend, I can’t overlook this chance to suggest to you a marvelous way to discredit yourself completely and lose the last minimal shreds of respectability that still raise lingering questions about your integrity. I have in mind what I think is one of the most illuminating examples of the total and complete intellectual and moral corruption of Western culture, namely, the awed response to Vaclav Havel’s embarrassingly silly and morally repugnant Sunday School sermon in Congress the other day. We may put aside the intellectual level of the comments (and the response) — for example, the profound and startlingly original idea that people should be moral agents. More interesting are the phrases that really captured the imagination and aroused the passions of Congress, editorial writers, and columnists — and, doubtless, soon the commentators in the weeklies and monthlies: that we should assume responsibility not only for ourselves, our families, and our nations, but for others who are suffering and persecuted. This remarkable and novel insight was followed by the key phrase of the speech: the cold war, now thankfully put to rest, was a conflict between two superpowers: one, a nightmare, the other, the defender of freedom (great applause).
Reading it brought to mind a number of past experiences in Southeast Asia, Central America, the West Bank, and even a kibbutz in Israel where I lived in 1953 — Mapam, super-Stalinist even to the extent of justifying the anti-Semitic doctor’s plot, still under the impact of the image of the USSR as the leader of the anti-Nazi resistance struggle. I recall remarks by a Fatherland Front leader in a remote village in Vietnam, Palestinian organizers, etc., describing the USSR as the hope for the oppressed and the US government as the brutal oppressor of the human race. If these people had made it to the Supreme Soviet they doubtless would have been greeted with great applause as they delivered this message, and probably some hack in Pravda would have swallowed his disgust and written a ritual ode.
I don’t mean to equate a Vietnamese villager to Vaclav Havel. For one thing, I doubt that the former would have had the supreme hypocrisy and audacity to clothe his praise for the defenders of freedom with gushing about responsibility for the human race. It’s also unnecessary to point out to the half a dozen or so sane people who remain that in comparison to the conditions imposed by US tyranny and violence, East Europe under Russian rule was practically a paradise. Furthermore, one can easily understand why an oppressed Third World victim would have little access to any information (or would care little about anything) beyond the narrow struggle for survival against a terrorist superpower and its clients. And the Pravda hack, unlike his US clones, would have faced a harsh response if he told the obvious truths. So by every conceivable standard, the performance of Havel, Congress, the media, and (we may safely predict, without what will soon appear) the Western intellectual community at large are on a moral and intellectual level that is vastly below that of Third World peasants and Stalinist hacks.
So: Vaclav Havel, a man who spent most of his adult life fighting communist oppression and imprisonment, was “morally repugnant” and worse than a “Stalinist hack” for saying that the U.S. was ” the defender of freedom.” Oh, and compared to any place America was fighting communism, “East Europe under Russian rule was practically a paradise.” So sayeth Pope Chomsky.
Havel wasn’t the only formerly left-wing public figure dying this week who attracted Pope Chomsky’s scorn for heresy. Christopher Hitchens also received condemnation for suggesting that Osama Bin Laden was, in fact, demonstrably more evil and culpable in the death of innocents than Bill Clinton. Hitchens, of course, gave at least as well as he got, and also noted he moral bankruptcy of Chomsky’s attack on Havel:
The last time we corresponded, some months ago, I was appalled by the robotic element both of his prose and of his opinions. He sought earnestly to convince me that Vaclav Havel, by addressing a joint session of Congress in the fall of 1989, was complicit in the murder of the Jesuits in El Salvador that had occurred not very long before he landed in Washington. In vain did I point out that the timing of Havel’s visit was determined by the November collapse of the Stalinist regime in Prague, and that on his first celebratory visit to the United States he need not necessarily take the opportunity to accuse his hosts of being war criminals. Nothing would do, for Chomsky, but a strict moral equivalence between Havel’s conduct and the mentality of the most depraved Stalinist.
Less than a year later, Hitchens himself would have enough of his former allies on the left and take leave from the High Church’s oldest organ, The Nation:
It’s obvious to me that the “antiwar” side would not be convinced even if all the allegations made against Saddam Hussein were proven, and even if the true views of the Iraqi people could be expressed. All evidence pointed overwhelmingly to the Taliban and Al Qaeda last fall, and now all the proof is in; but I am sent petitions on Iraq by the same people (some of them not so naïve) who still organize protests against the simultaneous cleanup and rescue of Afghanistan, and continue to circulate falsifications about it. The Senate adopted the Iraq Liberation Act without dissent under Clinton; the relevant UN resolutions are old and numerous. I don’t find the saner, Richard Falk-ish view of yet more consultation to be very persuasive, either.
This is something more than a disagreement of emphasis or tactics. When I began work for The Nation over two decades ago, Victor Navasky described the magazine as a debating ground between liberals and radicals, which was, I thought, well judged. In the past few weeks, though, I have come to realize that the magazine itself takes a side in this argument, and is becoming the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden. (I too am resolutely opposed to secret imprisonment and terror-hysteria, but not in the same way as I am opposed to those who initiated the aggression, and who are planning future ones.) In these circumstances it seems to me false to continue the association, which is why I have decided to make this “Minority Report” my last one.
Condemning Havel, driving out Hitchens; two small examples of just how extensively a reflexive anti-Americanism and hatred of conservatism has warped the judgment of those still filling the pews of the High Church of the American Left.