Can There Be a Decent Left, Revisited

Way back in 2002, as the left’s opposition to George W. Bush and the post-9/11 realities involved in defending ourselves was gaining steam, the prolific intellectual Michael Walzer published a self-critical article in Dissent entitled “Can There Be a Decent Left?” Although Walzer is a person of the left himself, he cringed at what he saw as the recrudescence of the worst of the left from the 1960s. For example, Walzer wrote: “And yet, the leftist critique–most clearly, I think, from the Vietnam years forward (from the time of ‘Amerika,’ Viet Cong flags, and breathless trips to the North)–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 left has lost its bearings. Why?”
Walzer suggested four reasons why the left became irresponsible and irrational (or “indecent,” as he bluntly put it), and suggested four reforms, the first being “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.” But he was not optimistic: “[W]hat the aftermath of September 11 suggests is that we have not advanced very far–and not always in the right direction. The left needs to begin again.” The article was not well received, and not much rebirth took place. Instead we got the ascendance of Cindy Sheehan and Keith Olbermann.
Another attempt at liberal intellectual rebirth is under way starting today at a conference out in Marin County (I know, that sounds like a parody), and I am attending as the invited conservative to throw down challenges to the assembled liberals as they reassess their position. Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, whose heterodox work I have mentioned here before, conceived this effort out of their tiny think tank, the Breakthrough Institute, and you can read more about the whole agenda and program here. They are also launching a new journal next week, the Breakthrough Journal, that is intended to be something like a liberal equivalent of the old Public Interest. I’ll have an article in the second issue later this year tentatively titled “Can Our Ideological Spectrum Disorder Be Fixed?” And before you run off to ask why I should be lending aid and comfort to liberals, let me remind everyone that The Public Interest used to include articles from leading liberals such as Robert Reich and Steven Kelman, because it made conservatives think harder to have worthy challengers in their pages.
I’ll try to send along some updates (though a run across the Golden Gate bridge during free time this afternoon will likely win out), or certainly a post-hoc account of some highlights, and once the pre-publication embargo on the Breakthrough Journal is lifted I’ll have some comments. For the moment, I’ll just mention in summary that some of the papers prepared for this conference are simply breathtaking in their willingness to challenge current liberal orthodoxy, nowhere more so than on environmental issues, but also on economic growth and other key matters. The hazard for the Breakthrough Institute is not that we conservatives will crush them, but that their reform-minded openness will be rejected by the left that desperately still needs reform today as much as it did when Walzer threw down his challenge.

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