Hidden Dimensions of American Politics, Part II: Vietnam

Hidden Dimensions of American Politics, Part II: Vietnam

(A version of this article was published in Blogcritics on January, 2009)

I

What is the Left, or the Right for that matter, we may ask? 

There are many traditional responses to this question. Some of them may have satisfied in the past, and they still reverberate with a semblance of truth. 

  • One may think here of a coalition of sorts — a group of like-minded individuals mobilized around an issue or set of issues, with the result that they’re perceived to be speaking with one voice. 
  • Or, one could point to the exponents of the view(s) thus represented — the few select individuals who stand head-and-shoulders above the rest, the standard-bearers. 
  • Alternately, one might wish to include here even the channels (or the outlets) more or less dedicated to spreading the message and which are therefore commonly identified (or associated) with it.
II

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those answers. Even now, they’re satisfactory to a point. I want to argue, however, that

  1. they’re only partial at best; that they no longer capture the full meaning; 
  2. concepts such as “the Left” or “the Right” have both evolved beyond their original formulation to be properly represented by simplistic, one-sided definitions; 
  3. a more comprehensive formulation is needed to fully grasp their present dimensions. 

To that end, I propose to trace these concepts’ evolution from their inception to the present.

III

Before the ’60s, such terms as the Left or the Right were virtually nonexistent and absent from our political lexicon. True, there were always divergent views on the American political scene: the abolitionists, the populists, the progressives. But these labels, aside from referring to some specific issue or a pet program or project, were short-lived. Once their raison d’être was resolved, so were the coalitions about which they centered. 

It isn’t to say they didn’t command public attention as they were hot — only that the longevity of those groups was directly related to the longevity of the issue itself. (I am excluding the Communists and any socialist-based movement from the general discussion because they were “un-American,” to use Joe McCarthy’s phrase, and always part of the fringe.) 

The Vietnam War had changed all that. For the first time, we began to hear such terms as “the radical,” “the Left,” or “the New- or Radical Left.”

IV

One popular expression of the general discontent was the student movement and the hippie revolution. Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter-Culture is perhaps the most lucid account of those turbulent times. 

Besides, there were other events to keep the fires burning – Black PanthersMalcolm X, and The Nation of IslamChicago Seven1 and Pentagon PapersColumbia protests and Watts riots, the Wounded Knee Occupation, Civil Rights, and Martin Luther King Jr., lest we forget! – but without Vietnam, they would have all come to naught! 

Vietnam was the single overriding issue about which everything else coalesced to form a coherent whole. It served as a glue to hold all the seemingly disparate pieces together.

And the defining moment of Vietnam was Kent State, where innocent students and bystanders were shot dead by the National Guard. Ever since, the Left has been on the rise and its exponents plentiful.

V

And so, we see Jane Fonda (“Hanoi Jane,” to some) and Abbie HoffmanMario Savio and Joan Baez (Free Speech Movement), Mark Rudd and Tom Hayden (SDS), Jimi Hendrix and Allen Ginsberg (Haight-Ashbury and Flower Power), the rise of Alternative Press (The Village Voice and Berkeley Barb) and magazines like The New Republic or Ramparts.  Even the intellectuals weren’t in short supply, judging by such notables as Noam ChomskyHoward Zinn, and Paul Goodman, to name but a few.

The politicians couldn’t remain immune to the sign of the times. Robert F. Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern – they all ran on the anti-Vietnam platform and became the darlings of the Left. Likewise, Mohammad Ali, a sports figure turning an instant icon. And there was always rock ‘n’ roll –and John Lennon, of course.

It’s no longer a party.  It’s a movement.

VI

What was it about Vietnam which had so energized not only the young but the rest of the country? 

Imagine Lyndon B. Johnson, the main force behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964, electing not to run because of the pressure. Or Richard Nixon, for that matter, squeaking by Hubert Humphrey (the Establishment’s answer to the more radical McCarthy and McGovern), negotiating for a truce with Vietnam. (Bobby Kennedy was a shoo-in had it not been for the assassination.) 

Gerald Ford was just an episode, a throwback to the Nixon era, and so was Reagan, the voice of reaction. Carter and Clinton (again, the Bushes excluded) were the true representatives. Now there is Obama, and the Left marches on. But it all goes back to Vietnam.2

Unless you understand Vietnam, you have no clue what the Left is about or how it impacts present-day politics!

VII

It’s the same with the Right. Its origins are obscure by comparison, less pedigreed, relegated to the voice of reaction. 

There was a power vacuum, and it needed filling. And so we see the emergence of such terms as “the Silent Majority” (1969), then “the Moral Majority” (1978), eventually the “Christian Coalition” or the “Christian Right” (1980). But from the get-go, it was a party of default, always on the defensive, forever reactionary. And the point was — to offset the growing power and influence of the Left. And throughout its many evolutions, throughout its many accretions, Vietnam would remain the divisive issue, if not de facto, then as a symbol.  

It always will.

VIII

Let’s settle for an operational definition. The Left or the Right is public opinion mobilized around some polarizing moral issue or issues. It’s an opinion that had attained sufficient critical mass to affect major political decisions in matters of public policy or whatever area even remotely connected to the issue at hand.

Notice the necessary conditions and how “Vietnam” meets these requirements.

1. Polarizing moral issue: That’s the key element to understanding the nature of the Left. It was born out of moral protest, and the issue had divided the country in half. The protesters objected to the fundamental immorality of their government, as exhibited in a blatant act of aggression. The objectives of those who opposed them were less clearly defined. Defending the status quo and a false sense of patriotism comes to mind first. Eventually, the Right coalesced around more positive values – the Church, the home, the family – but the precedent was set. The Left seized high moral ground, and it would never let go. Its strength derived from being, in essence, an emotional (moral) appeal, which is why (and this is only in passing) the Civil War, for instance, pales by comparison: though it was no less polarizing and a moral issue to some, it was, by and large, economic in the making; freeing the slaves served as the pretext.

2. Public opinion: Apart from it being a coalition of sorts, the Left, or more appropriately perhaps, the voice of the Left, is (for lack of a better term) public opinion. The same is true of the Right. The origin of the concept dates back to Montaigne (1588), and it has undergone many evolutions since. Still, there is hardly a dispute that public opinion plays a vital role in politics — especially today, given the virtual explosion in mass communications, media, and the Internet.

3. Critical mass: That’s almost a given. For public opinion to make a difference and count for something, it must command a large base of support. So, again, mass communications play a critical role. It’s a precondition facilitating the entire process.

IX

Thus, the Left and the Right are the culmination of the Fourth Estate — once the prerogative of the press. There are crucial differences, however. 

In the olden days, the press was free to debate other parliamentary powers issue by issue. Today, its function is limited to being a mouthpiece, nothing but a channel. 

Moreover, the worldview it espouses is pre-packaged, designed for mass consumption, to be spoon-fed. It’s is especially true of America, where the intellectual has always been in disrepute. 

X

France and Italy, France especially, might be different. There had always been a strong intellectual tradition in France, starting with the Enlightenment through the present. 

Take the Sartre-Camus-Merleau-Ponty quarrel, for instance, memorialized by Simone de Beauvoir’s in The Mandarins; or the more recent voices of Foucault, Derrida and Lacan. 

It’s the same for Germany, where the dispute between Habermas and Jean-François Lyotard over aspects of modernity and post-modernity has kept the European intellectual community riveted and literally on the edge of their seat. Or Italy or Argentine, for that matter. The first has Umberto Eco as its pride and joy; the second, an intellectual giant named Jorge Luis Borges. Indeed, compared to his intellectual equals, Noam Chomsky is a voice in the wilderness.  

But all indications are that even in Europe and the rest of the world, the climate is changing. Indeed, the voice of the Left keeps on reasserting itself, drowning out all the dissident and perhaps more enlightened voices, whether you’re listening to BBC or Deutschlandfunk, German national radio. And it’s spreading like wildfire.

XI

It’s no wonder that conservatives and liberals alike are apt to join forces on any number of issues rather than risk being caught in the crossfire of the ideological battle (or “culture wars,” as some would have it) between the Right and the Left. 

Consequently, the traditional distinction between the liberals and the conservatives is quickly becoming obsolete or irrelevant for practical purposes. Indeed, all too often, they do find themselves on the same side of the fence.

XII

In Part III, I’ll address the implications, in particular, why Mr. Prager’s challenge to Mr. Dershowitz is not only unreasonable but disingenuous. 

In passing, I’ll make a suggestion or two as to what the Israelis could do to alleviate the weight of public opinion against them. Still, I don’t hold out much hope for that.

It’s almost a safe bet that things will go on pretty much as they always have.

Notes
  1. See The Trial of the Chicago 7, presently airing on Netflix.
  2. This article dates back to January 2009, and there’s nothing like hindsight to set matters straight, contrary to first impressions. Aside from Jimmy Carter, good intentions and all, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have proven to be nothing but centrists at best, only masquerading as genuine exponents of the Radical Left. And it’s no different with the present occupier of the White House, Joe Bidden. All of this goes to show that the future of the Left is not contingent on presidential politics. Had he lived, Bobby Kennedy or even Ted might have filled the bill, but that time is no longer. Both are but remnants of the forgotten past. But my point still stands — notwithstanding! AOC and the rest of “The Squad” — and let’s not forget good ole’ Bernie!–are powerful voices to move the party in the right direction, away from centrist, establishment politics and towards a brighter future of equity and justice for all. At present, those voices are still local. They’re yet to make their presence felt on the national scene. But however it turns, make no mistake about it — the Left is still on the march, especially if we conceive of “the Left” as “public opinion the making.” Indeed, as Martin Luther King Jr. had once said, “ The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”   

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