Left in a Rut 

Many progressives stuck between flag-burning and flag-waving.

Three thousand miles from ground zero, it may seem like little has changed in the past year. On the national level, however, the attacks became the new political lens through which Americans view the world. The hijackers proved that America was no longer impregnable, that its enemies were capable of striking on its own turf, and in that context, a previously ineffectual president stepped into the nation's living rooms to offer an ultimatum: Which side are you on?

In the eyes of many leftists, America was reaping what its foreign policy had sown, and Bush's ultimatum seemed like yet another act in some Wag the Dog script. But for many others, September 11 was downright confusing. "People on the left were talking about it as though the terrorists were merely innocent victims of oppression. Other people said this is no moment to have an alternative voice. This is a moment to rally around the flag," says Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of San Francisco-based Tikkun magazine.

America has always preferred dichotomy over nuance -- Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, left or right -- and post-9/11, the country had little tolerance for ambivalence. Shortly after the attacks, liberal writer Susan Sontag penned a New Yorker piece asking, "Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a 'cowardly' attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or the 'free world,' but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?" She was immediately condemned, not only by right-wing reactionaries, but mainstream critics, too.

Bill Maher, the popular host of Politically Incorrect, made a similar observation on his show and was forced to publicly apologize after Sears and FedEx pulled their ads. (The show was later canceled.) A columnist for an Oregon newspaper was canned after commenting that Bush hid "in a Nebraska hole" after the attacks. And Peter Jennings received more than 10,000 angry phone calls and e-mails after implying that Bush might not be the kind of leader we needed in the wake of the tragedy.

It was clearly no time to be caught in the middle, but that's exactly where many people found themselves: somewhere between blaming America for creating international enemies on one side, and supporting the war in Afghanistan on the other. What did it mean to be a leftist anymore? Did you still have to denounce any US military action? Did a flag in your window suggest an alliance with conservatives? Did support for Palestinians indicate rejection of Israel? Over the past year, American progressives have suffered a profound identity crisis.

Even in the liberal haven of Berkeley, things were tough. When the city council passed a resolution demanding an end to the US bombing in Afghanistan, it was deluged with angry letters and phone calls. "In the twenty years I've been involved in Berkeley politics, I've never seen anything like this," Mayor Shirley Dean, who voted against the resolution, told the Los Angeles Times in October 2001.

Despite the charged atmosphere, the fringe left -- the tear gas and barricade crowd -- had little to lose by opposing the president. For everyday progressives trying to work within the system, it was a different story. Judging from poll numbers, this war was an unmitigated hit, and activists were scared to speak out. Outside the Bay Area, you'd hardly know a peace movement existed. Where, after all, were the antiwar protests, the sit-ins, the civil disobedience?

Adding to the confusion was an Israeli-Palestinian conflict that, for some, worsened the rift on the left. Progressive American Jews found themselves trapped again, this time between feelings of sympathy for the Palestinians and revulsion for the anti-Semitism that seemed to have insinuated itself in the protest rhetoric.

At a recent march for workers' rights, a cause she'd always wholeheartedly endorsed, Rabbi Andrea Berlin of Oakland's Temple Sinai saw participants wearing black T-shirts that read "Free Palestine" with stars of David crossed out. She left the rally. "I've felt confusion about where I fall politically," she says. "I feel rejected by those I felt aligned with previously."

On the institutional level, liberal organizations have had to struggle so as not to be labeled un-American. "September 11 made a lot of our work more difficult," says Mike Dolan, a local director for Naderite consumer group Public Citizen. "Suddenly we were fighting our 'Wartime Commander in Chief,' not 'W,' or 'Shrub.'"

Allyson Collins, associate director on US issues for Human Rights Watch, describes a similar experience. "Last fall," she says, "there was a time when some people felt us continuing to do the work that we do was in poor taste."

But the left may simply be adapting to a changing world. Some prominent progressives, including 1960s radicals-turned-academics Michael Walzer and Todd Gitlin, and Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, have recently argued that the left has never been against all war, and that 9/11 provides an opportunity for progressives to affect foreign policy in the name of American security, rather than merely pointing fingers.

Last December, in response to the attacks, Lerner teamed up with black scholar Cornel West to establish the national Tikkun Community. Its message: "The only fitting memorial for those who died at the World Trade Center and those who have died in the Middle East is also the only path for real security in the US and Israel: Build a world filled with love, generosity, social justice, ecological sanity, peace, and joyful celebration of the grandeur of creation."

Supporting both Israeli statehood and the Palestinian cause, the nonsectarian "community" has drawn criticism from both right and left. But participation is booming. Eight hundred people attended its first meeting in New York City; it now claims three thousand members, which, according to Lerner, makes it one of the nation's fastest-growing progressive movements.

Such organizations could prove to be a silver lining to the past year's turmoil, the formation of a new left able to attract people who want nothing to do with cynical anti-Americanism but believe in social justice nonetheless. Perhaps such inclinations can help wean us from the need to take absolute sides in every conflict -- discarding dichotomy and letting nuance carry the day.


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